by Jim Wolfe, IAMU Electric Services Coordinator
I had the opportunity to travel to Minneapolis this year for the 2015 APPA National Conference & Public Power Expo. This was great due to the fact that it was not a very long drive from Ankeny. Many representatives from our member utilities also made the trip. This was my first National Convention and I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. My position requires me to focus on safety and training issues and not necessarily on major items that public utilities have to deal with every day.
There was a lot of conversation about how public power has changed and will continue to evolve around the nation. These changes come in the forms of new technology, customer service issues, workforce demographics, regulatory compliance, and a host of others. Time, money, knowledge, and forward thinking people will be the deciding factors that will allow utilities to get on the bus or be run over by it.
One of the major topics that many presentations touched on was the challenges created by renewable energy. For years, electric utilities have been the only game in town when it comes to serving and selling electricity. The costs of renewable sources were extremely high and the technology was not very reliable. The last surge in fuel prices drove many companies, investors, and private individuals to jump over these hurdles and make it feasible. We have seen this happen in the past two years and many of you are finding that you may not be the only power supplier that your customer will rely on. Solar and other technologies have become cheaper and been incentivized by state and federal governments. This has been embraced by individuals and companies to enable them become environmentally consious and reduce their energy costs. The challenges that utilities face will be dealing with lost revenue, service rules, metering and a list of others. One of the common messages throughout the week was that utilities must not ignore what is here or what is right around the corner.
There were a lot of great programs explaining the roles of boards and councils that govern utilities. There were programs that explained the electric business from start to finish and others that focused on financial matters that decision makers face as members of councils and boards. Utilities should attempt to give these people some sort of tutorial to explain their responsibilities. Lack of knowledge creates decisions that might not be best for the business. Legislative and regulatory issues were also among the topics covered.
Public powers role in the nation was the main takeaway from the convention. The electric utility is often the quiet business that exists in the center of town that continues to operate without fanfare, publicity, or help from outside sources. To gain or retain support from current and future customers, you must promote the value of your utility. There are a variety of things that customers directly and indirectly benefit from public power. Keeping customers engaged about what it takes to operate a utility can help them understand how the utility benefits its customers with economic development, reliable power, excellent customer service, and a solid cornerstone of the community. To reinforce this point, Don Miller from Carlisle Utilities received an award at the convention for his service to the utility and the community. This is a great example of how Iowa utilities go above and beyond and wonderful to see one of our members recognized.
It was a very good experience and I was able to speak to a lot of people with the same goal. Whether attendees had 500,000 customers or 500 back at their home utility, they still strive to do what is right for their public power utility and create a reliable and low cost product.