That Pioneer Spirit
Originally published February 4, 2013
The earliest settlers of the southeastern corner of Utah found a tough, nearly uninhabitable home. In the subtropical arid climate that came with its location at the edge of the Mojave Desert, they faced limited access to water and weather unlike that of Salt Lake City, over 250 miles north.
Yet in the face of constant hardship, their pioneer spirit never wavered.
Today, St. George has become the largest city in Utah outside of the greater Salt Lake City area, with a seasonal population that modulates with the arrival of students to its four-year college, retirees to its multitudinous golf courses, and tourists to its picturesque views of the Colorado Plateau and Zion National Park.
“So much of what has made this city work to get where it is has been that pioneer spirit,” said Phillip Solomon, energy services director for the St. George Energy Services Department (SGESD). “They came here to achieve something, they saw where it worked and didn’t, and they did what they could to make it all work in the end.”
The early settlement was built off of a gamble by Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints President Brigham Young, who saw the land as an option for cotton production while the Civil War raged in the East. Because of this, the region was christened “Dixie,” even as production failed to match expectations.
Even the earliest attempts at city services involved much trial and error, with water distribution testing the pioneers’ patience and constitutions due to problems with the infrastructure and the health effects of water dipped from ditches that were downstream from livestock. Determined to make the settlement work, the city bonded and worked together to construct the necessary infrastructure, not just for growth, but for survival.
And grow it did, especially from people moving from Salt Lake City. This created a new need and a new project: electric power. Salt Lake City built its first central power station in 1881, making it the fifth city to do so in the United States. These new residents of St. George had already known the pleasures of artificial lighting and electric appliances.
In 1909, the first franchise to bring an electric light system to the city was passed and sold to a private investor. Seven months later, the city voted 156 to 8 to buy the newly built hydro plant and start its own municipal utility.
Yet the same city growth that had emboldened St. George to enter into the electric business brought its quick demise. New investment necessary to upgrade and expand capacity took a toll on the city as it prepared for the effects of U.S. entry into World War I and the departure of much of the city’s work force. Seven years after it had been established, St. George’s municipal utility was sold to a private businessman and renamed Dixie Power Co.
Twenty-five years of tension followed as the private company expanded, moved headquarters, was renamed Southern Utah Power, and was sold to a private company in Tacoma, Wash. When a new franchise agreement came up for a vote, the City Council unanimously rejected its renewal.
As the private companies in the area joined in a campaign against municipalization, citizens got involved in the debate. “In considering the advantage of municipal ownership of your power system versus private ownership, one must recognize that you are buying your own plant, you are providing home labor, profits are returned to the citizens, and rate reductions are possible at any time,” said an editorial in the Dixie Reminder.
In April 1942, after a bond election vote of 952 to 287, municipal electric power in St. George began again with the startup of two city-owned diesel units. As electricity began to flow into his own home, then-Mayor D.C. Watson declared to the Washington County News, “Every man, woman and child in the city is an owner in the Municipal Plant… and will duly benefit in the plant’s operations. The Municipal Plant is here to stay and serve the people.”
“It all comes back to that pioneer heritage,” Solomon said. “We go forward and do what we have to do to keep our customers happy without relying on outside entities.”
Growth continued and, fortuitously, coincided with the arrival of federal hydro generation at Glen Canyon Dam, 120 miles east of St. George. Seeking to get in on the project, St. George spearheaded the creation of the Intermountain Consumer Power Association, a collective of all the municipal electric utilities in Utah along with one each in Idaho and Nevada. Their lobbying efforts paid off in the form of a portion of the generation from the Colorado River Storage Project.
“This was really significant because for the first time St. George was hooked into the national grid,” Solomon said. “It enabled us to have a transmission feed into the city that was very important as the city kept growing.”
Solomon came to the utility in 1985 as the city’s first in-house engineer. Like so many other St. George residents, Solomon is a Salt Lake City native who was attracted to the city’s weather, surroundings, and recreational opportunities.
“I’ve made a promise to myself that I’m not going to ever live anywhere east of the Colorado River,” he said.
Solomon’s migration to St. George in the mid 1980s came at the apex of the city’s population boom. By 1990, St. George was the second fastest growing metropolitan area in the U.S. Solomon’s first major project was installation of a 14-MW diesel system to enable the city to meet growing demand for electricity.
“We were getting a reputation for brownouts,” said René Fleming, water and energy services conservation coordinator. “We didn’t like that and knew something needed to be done.”
“It was a really lucky deal for us, both in terms of our needs and what we got it for,” he said. St. George purchased two diesel generators from a canceled Tennessee Valley Authority nuclear plant for 10 cents on the dollar, Solomon said.
“We’ve built new resources as the city has needed them,” Solomon said. “As a member of a joint action agency [Utah Association of Municipal Power Systems], the city has participated in large projects there were needed but too large for St. George alone to build and we’ve learned how to do things the best way along the way.”
The lights may have fizzled on the first attempt at a municipal utility in St. George, but there’s no reason to think that could ever happen again.
“Our entire city is pro-public power,” Solomon said. “We have had many investor-owned utilities come into the area trying to buy us out and the city shuns them because they are proud of what they have and what they can control on their own.”
New generation, new opportunities. Much of the 20th century for the St. George Water and Power Department was spent trying to keep up with demand. In the 21st century, the St. George Energy Services Department is finding new ways to stay ahead of the needs of an ever-shifting population of snowbirds who arrive during the winter and Dixie State College students who are gone during the summer.
With that in mind, Solomon has been aggressive in proposing new generation so the utility never sees brownouts again due to insufficient capacity. In 2006, the city built the first of two 40-MW gas generators that use GE engines. The city secured permits for a third unit, though the gas units, which use the same engines as Boeing 757 airplains, are only needed for summer peak loads. Projections show one unit will likely be needed for winter peaks by 2015.
A few miles away from the new gas-fired plant, the city is developing a new untraditional form of power: the Sun Smart solar farm.
“We’ve partnered with Dixie Escalante Electric [a neighboring cooperative] on a solar facility that is owned by the city, but which allows customers to participate in having renewable electricity,” Fleming said.
Soloman called it “virtual solar.” He said it allows customers to have solar on their homes without the risk.
The solar panels can produce 250 kW of electricity for St. George and Dixie Escalante Electric customers. The solar site’s capacity can be expanded up to 2 MW.
All these projects have made it possible for St. George to leverage its generation in the energy market.
“One of the things that I think best shows our pioneer heritage is our 24-hour trading desk,” Solomon said. “It’s a way for the city to be secure in how resources are best being used and it gives some of the staff great opportunities to learn and grow in their professions.”
“This means we can make the important decisions on our own portfolio and can keep it diversified by incorporating renewables and natural gas,” Fleming said.
For years, the city was frustrated that it would hire a trader, train them, and then lose them to higher paying jobs elsewhere, Fleming said. All this changed after Energy Resource Manager Laurie Mangum found information on Bismarck State College’s energy utility online courses in a 2007 Public Power article. With some tinkering, the city created a curriculum with Bismarck that the state could recognize for training traditional utility dispatchers to be apprentice system control operators and traders with North American Electric Reliability Corp. certification.
“We want to make sure that the system control operators can do much more than what a traditional operator could do,” Fleming said. “This means we have better people in those positions and they have real opportunities to grow from what they’ve learned on the job.”
Fleming said the utility’s willingness to allow for substantial growth among its staff is one of the great parts of working for the department. Fleming started 12 years ago as a secretary for the combined water and power departments; Mangum began at the utility working in the warehouse.
“This plays into the reasons personnel like to stick around,” said Solomon. “We create opportunities, we are forward-thinking, and we are aggressive. You can see that when the employees spend 20-plus years in the department.”
Such moves make 20-year careers more satisfying, Solomon said.
“System operators tend to get to a certain level and never are able to move past that,” he said. “They find themselves stuck staring at a screen until they retire or make a move elsewhere. We wanted to change that paradigm.”
The system operator apprenticeship program has since been adopted elsewhere in Utah, Arizona and New Mexico, he said.
“What can I say, it our pioneer spirit,” he said. “We saw a way to go and we paved the way.”
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