Big utilities might grab more headlines for trying new technologies and approaches, but size doesn’t dictate an organization’s commitment to embracing change for the better. Here’s a look at three public power utilities that are adept at bringing innovation to life.
The folks at Kaukauna Utilities, a community-owned utility in Wisconsin with about 16,000 electric customers, clearly remember the days before advanced metering infrastructure fed last-gasp outage notifications into an outage management system that helps dispatchers know where to send restoration crews. That’s because for Kaukauna, the implementation happened in the middle of COVID-19 lockdowns.
Prior to implementing the outage management system, pinpointing an outage location was a manual chore built on a process more vulnerable to error. Customer service representatives who answered calls would relay a pile of handwritten notes — sometimes on scrap paper pulled from a recycling bin — which would be the basis of information used to direct restoration crews, said David Pahl, the utility’s manager of generation and substations.
To identify precise outage locations, utility staff often had to drive the lines to find the trouble spots or return to customer premises multiple times to finalize restoration efforts.
The utility addressed these problems with both a new OMS and an interactive voice response system that allows customers to report outages and prompts them to sign up for text alerts on restoration progress. Integrating these technologies gave the utility a way to reach customers via multiple channels, which customers applauded. “Social media is so often a place for negativity,” said Brittany Simonson, Kaukauna’s communications coordinator. “There were many positive Facebook comments on our outage communications. People said how nice it was to have those text updates.”
Implementing the OMS and integrated technologies as COVID-19 was ramping up meant that deployment activities such as staff training had to happen remotely during lockdowns.
Since the system developer had never trained utility personnel remotely, the Kaukauna team worked with its technology provider to hash out an approach that included train-the-trainer sessions so that utility staffers could help each other through a variety of outage simulations. After training, staff circled back to help those who had bandwidth issues or needed training reinforcement.
The OMS implementation is just one of many examples of how Kaukauna considers how technology can offer solutions for utility operations. Tackling new approaches to doing things is part of the Kaukauna Utilities character, and Pahl said utility leadership has made innovation a strategic priority. Looking forward, Pahl said the utility will be examining the addition of electric vehicle charging stations and grid-scale storage to leverage the 50% of its capacity that comes from hydroelectric generation.
“One of our ideas is to store the hydroelectric power produced at night and use it during the day when purchase power rates are higher,” Pahl said. “That will provide a cheaper source of energy for our customers during peak times.” It would also increase the utility’s renewable capacity.
Learning from the process
Environmental stewardship is a strong driver for innovation at Moorhead Public Service in Minnesota. “We’ve always tried to be just a little ahead of the curve,” said Dennis Eisenbraun, the utility’s energy services manager. Referring to a 1999 implementation, he quipped, “We did wind turbines before wind turbines were cool.”
MPS did solar gardens before they were cool, too, adding nine different offerings since 2015, each of which sold out quickly. Between wind, solar and hydropower, some 55% of the power MPS delivers to its community of 44,000 comes from renewable generation.
In an effort to expand its green power offerings, MPS secured a grant through the American Public Power Association’s Demonstration of Energy & Efficiency Developments program, which funds research and technology pilots. “We’re trying to get people off of fossil fuels,” Eisenbraun said, adding that this is one reason the city began looking at a new twist on an old concept: district heating with geothermal power.
“One of the first things early utilities offered was district heating systems,” he explained. “They would have a central generating plant that ran a boiler to heat water, and then they would send it down tunnels to buildings in a downtown area or campus to heat buildings. That’s what we were trying to do with a community geothermal system.”
In studying the project, MPS engineers realized that this early-20th-century approach was more complicated than it first appeared, so utility staff decided to focus on a one-building project. “You have to be flexible,” Eisenbraun said when asked what lessons were learned from this project.
Committed to working with the developer on the one-building geothermal proposal, MPS went back to the drawing board multiple times to come up with a system and costs for the heating and cooling service that worked for the customer. In the end, the cost didn’t wow this builder, even though the utility was offering the service at a nearly break-even price.
“You have to look for a good partner on a project like this,” said Travis Schmidt, interim general manager and electrical engineering manager. While the first developer didn’t commit to the project, Schmidt said discussions are underway with another who might bring geothermal power to town.
The utility’s company culture helps bring innovations like this to fruition. “Like most municipal utilities, we’re a very technical organization. There are a lot of smart people who come up with great ideas here,” Schmidt said. “You have to have a workforce that is willing to try doing things differently, to achieving something better. You also need a city council or board willing to do things that are better for the environment and the customers you serve.”
That’s a point of pride for MPS, which has won numerous awards for its renewable energy efforts and is considered an early leader among municipalities nationwide. “We definitely hit above our weight class,” said Eisenbraun.
Focusing on customer solutions
The small town of Hudson, Ohio, sits between two larger cities — Cleveland and Akron — and it plays easily with bigger kids on the innovation ballfield. In 2019, Hudson was named one of the world’s top seven intelligent communities by the Intelligent Community Forum, a global network of cities with a think tank at its center. The town is served by Hudson Public Power, which serves some 6,964 electric customers and provides water to the community.
“Innovation for the purpose of innovation is not what we’re trying to do,” said Frank Cormeriato, assistant city manager of operations. “Our focus has always been on improving the quality of life for the community.”
“Innovation doesn’t mean that you’re using the latest or best technologies,” he added. “It goes deeper than that. It reflects how you look at things and how you solve problems.”
Faced with a problem of slow, unreliable and overpriced internet service, Hudson leaders considered three potential solutions. First, Cormeriato recalled, the city leadership asked the town’s internet service providers to implement system improvements. “ Those needed improvements were not implemented,” he said. Next, the town considered leasing dark fiber to those ISPs. Providers were not responsive to this proposal. Finally, Hudson designed and built its own broadband network, which was completed in 2016. Four years later, the town supplies internet service to nearly 42% of local businesses.
In addition to solving problems creatively, the Hudson team seeks to gain as much value out of innovations as possible. For instance, the town has a 16.6-kilowatt photovoltaic solar system that powers a local community center and serves as an educational facility. Hudson received a DEED grant in 2015 to support the educational components of the facility.
“We teach firemen what they’re going to see when at a home with a solar array and how they should deal with it,” said Kevin Powell, who oversees the utility as assistant director of public works. “We also have some of the schools in the area bring their students to [the facility] to learn about the benefits of solar energy and how the systems work.”
Another innovation that has multiple benefits is a recently drilled brine well that taps salt deposits some 3,000 feet underground to regenerate water softeners for the city water. This effort will save the water utility some $200,000 annually, which means the investment will be fully paid off in about eight years. It also will shave approximately 10% off snow and ice mitigation costs for the town because the brine can be used to pre-treat roads.
Along with looking for multiple benefits for each innovation, Hudson also seeks novel ways to get projects done. When looking to do a smart lighting project, the town partnered with a technology company and became “kind of a sandbox for them,” Powell said. Now, new LED street lights cost about 25% of what the old, high-pressure sodium fixtures cost to run, plus engineers can customize lighting down to each individual lamp post.
Hudson Public Power is now looking at mobile applications that highlight available parking spaces for residents and visitors and call attention to Wi-Fi hotspots in the town. “We’ve been looking at the impact of COVID-19, and we see more people working from home, so we’ve seen a huge uptick on the number of people coming downtown with their computers to work,” Cormeriato said.
“It’s all about the experience residents and customers have in our community,” Powell added. “If you keep that in focus and discuss innovations publicly, you’ll probably succeed.”