Community Engagement
Distributed Energy Resources

At French Lick: vital role of joint action agencies

On March 27-28, I went to French Lick, Indiana, to speak at the Annual Meeting of the Indiana Municipal Power Agency (IMPA). IMPA is a joint action agency that provides wholesale power and other services to 60 Indiana public power electric utilities.

To get to French Lick, I had to fly to Louisville, rent a car, and drive through Southern Indiana. I had no idea that the countryside was so scenic — I drove part of the way on interstates, but part of the trip was on two-lane roads through rolling hills, woods and farms. I followed a hay truck for a few miles and even encountered an Amish one-horse cart. Quite a change from morning rush hour in DC!

French Lick was even more of a surprise. All I knew before I went was that it was the home of Larry Bird (the basketball genius known as the "Hick from French Lick"). But it features two very historic and architecturally striking hotels, the French Lick Springs Hotel (where IMPA had its meeting) and the West Baden Springs Hotel. An electric trolley connects the two. The West Baden Hotel has a soaring six-story domed atrium. Both have amazing mosaic tile in their lobbies and common areas, and beautifully landscaped grounds. (Sad to say it was very cold, with snow flurries while I was there — so no grounds exploration for me.) No wonder French Lick was the venue of the 1931 National Governors Association meeting that Franklin D. Roosevelt attended as then governor of New York, a year before he was elected president of the U.S.

IMPA has a 206 MW capacity share of the Prairie States Energy Campus, a new state-of-the-art coal facility, so we heard an update on operations there from its new CEO, Don Gaston, and his team — a good news story, as costs are coming down and production is up.

We also heard Siobhan Pritchard of Dovetail Solar talk about IMPA's solar program. IMPA in 2014 constructed three 1 MW solar parks in IMPA communities: Frankton, Rensselaer, and Richmond. The municipal utilities secured the land, while IMPA worked with Dovetail on the construction. These installations have helped IMPA learn more about solar power and cost-effective solar generation development. IMPA plans to install solar facilities in six more communities in 2015, and eventually hopes to have solar installations in all 60 of its member communities in 10 years.

IMPA CEO Raj Rao spoke frankly to his members about changes coming to the industry, including the need to prepare for a low/no load growth environment, and the effects of new technologies. He also feted IMPA's outgoing board chair, Marlow Smethurst of Tell City. Marlow in turn welcomed into office IMPA's new board chair, Sue Saunders of Lewisville. Lewisville is a very small community of about 360 people, so Sue and her staff of two have to wear many hats!

While my trip to French Lick was very short, it was very educational — both about Southern Indiana, and what makes IMPA tick. Our joint action agencies play a vital role in the public power ecosystem, handling power supply, transmission, and a host of other services for their local utility members. This allows the members to do what they do best — provide reliable, reasonably priced and environmentally responsible retail electric service to their own customers."