Bonneville Power Administration Increases Hydro Awareness With Regional Communications Initiative

For many utilities, communications can be a challenge. A utility’s communications manager may be a Jack- or Jill-of-all-trades, heading tasks such as marketing, customer service, and outage outreach in addition to managing communications.

To help the busy staff at the electric utilities in its service territory, Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) — a nonprofit federal power marketing administration wholesale power provider based in the Pacific Northwest — is assisting utilities in educating their customers on the benefits of hydropower. The population of the Pacific Northwest has increased dramatically in recent decades, and many transplants are unfamiliar with the region’s history of hydropower. Hydropower provides 87 percent of the energy of many public power utilities in the Northwest and 90 percent of the region’s renewable energy.

“Our customer utilities recognized a hydropower knowledge gap among their end-use consumers and wanted to address it,” says BPA’s Public Affairs Specialist Karrie Carnes. “However, at some of these utilities, their sole communications person might wear several hats and not have the time or design resources to do it on their own.”

In June 2017, after collaboration with and input from public power utilities, BPA launched Hydropower Flows Here, a communications effort to increase public awareness of hydropower in the Northwest.

“This the first time in my 30 years at BPA that we have able to successfully brand Northwest hydropower as a clean, renewable, and affordable resource,” says Media Relations Manager Mike Hansen. “We also managed to create the hydropower educational campaign with no increased budget while conveying what a great value hydropower is to our 140 public utility customers throughout the Northwest.”

As part of Hydropower Flows Here, BPA provides creative and accurate content to participating utilities. The utilities can use the content as is, customize it to their service territories, or create original products. The educational content typically falls into three categories: reliable power, clean energy, and economic benefits.

Educational content is provided in digital and print format, including social media posts, videos, GIFs, infographics, website articles, and rack cards. Some utilities have used Hydropower Flows Here content in customers’ bills or printed them in monthly magazines or newsletters. BPA also develops content for member meetings, internal events, and community festivals.

Participation in Hydropower Flows Here is completely free and voluntary for utilities. Currently, more than 45 utilities in Idaho, Oregon, Montana, Nevada, and Washington participate.

To come up with the creative content month after month, BPA’s Hydropower Flows Here team works hard to make sure messages are unique, important to customers, and varied. They tie content to monthly events, seasons, and holidays, and periodically survey utilities to find out what topics resonate with their end-use consumers.

“Sometimes we have coffee- and chocolate-fueled brainstorming sessions,” Carnes says. “We have a small but mighty interdisciplinary team. From writing and design to photography and editing, we all bring different strengths to the table.”

In addition, BPA hosts monthly webinars for participating utilities to review what’s going on with Hydropower Flows Here initiatives and determine engagement opportunities for the next month’s content. The webinars share lessons learned and help foster a sense of community among participating utilities.

The team tries to take a personal approach to educational messages by putting themselves in the shoes of the end-use consumer. Hydropower Flows Here aims to make the benefits of hydropower and its impact on everyday life easy to understand.

“Historically, a lot of messaging about hydro has been very focused on infrastructure, but not all people who benefit from hydropower live near a river and many have never seen a dam,” Carnes says. “Hydropower isn’t something that happens far away, it touches consumers’ lives on a daily basis. Through our educational content, we try to present an emotional and relatable connection to hydropower.”

Instead of showing images of dams and turbines, Hydropower Flows Here content depicts the way residents and businesses use hydropower, from charging cell phones and making popcorn to heating homes and powering electric vehicles.

BPA’s customer utilities participating in Hydropower Flows Here have shared that they are happy with the education initiative, so there’s no end date in sight. In fact, the effort is growing. BPA is planning on a series of hydropower 101 podcasts, Facebook live interviews and other creative strategies.

Since Hydropower Flows Here launched in 2017, the agency has created nearly 100 pieces of creative content highlighting the clean energy, reliable power, and economic benefits of Northwest hydropower. Educational products are posted to social media using the hashtag #HydroFlowsHere, which has been used more than 1,300 times, with a potential reach of more than four million people.

“BPA’s Hydropower Flows Here initiative has been a tremendous asset for communicating the value of Northwest hydropower using a variety of methods: social media, coloring contests, and community events, to name a few that we have used,” says Community and Public Relations Specialist for the Columbia River Public Utility District Kyle Boggs. “We are grateful for the materials BPA has provided and the passion its staff has put behind this effort to educate our customers about the many benefits hydropower provides to the region.”

BPA’s efforts were honored by the National Hydropower Association, which awarded it with a 2019 Outstanding Stewards of America’s Waters award in the Public Education category.