Powering Strong Communities

Public Power Leaders: Doug Hunter

A Q&A with Doug Hunter, who is retiring from Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems after 45 years, including 27 as CEO and general manager. Based off a “Public Power Now” podcast from December 2022.

How did you get started in a career in public power?

I started working for UAMPS in 1979, back when it was called the Intermountain Consumer Power Association. I was the ninth employee hired, and the concept at the time was basically to staff all the development of projects at that point in time, which got me in on the ground floor. I went through all aspects of a public power organization — resource, transmission access, etc. At one point, I was even answering phones. As the organization grew, my role naturally progressed until, eventually, I became assistant general manager and then CEO.  

When you look at your legacy, what are you most proud of?

It’s hard to pick one. In terms of what has helped our membership, breaking the transmission monopoly was the big one. We really had to go through a challenge to break the monopoly of Utah Power & Light (now Rocky Mountain Power, a subdivision of PacifiCorp). It was such a huge accomplishment because it finally allowed us to buy power in a more competitive manner. We still didn’t have the power of the markets that we see today, but it was the most successful endeavor for our members. … It helped to stabilize rates, which improved economic development, which in turn brought population growth.

We also built a lot of projects. For instance, we built the first combined-cycle gas plant in Utah, before any investor-owned utility did, which is now the norm.

How have you ensured a smooth transition of leadership to UAMPS’ next leader, Mason Baker?

The board knew in 2021 that I wasn’t going to go past the end of 2023 as leader of UAMPS. That was important to the transition, so we could establish a procedure of how we were going to go through it so there wouldn’t be a negative impact to the organization. Even with a transition to an internal candidate, it takes a lot of work. That long-term planning process allowed for it to be smooth.

What challenges does the utility sector face?

Public power’s challenges are similar to any other utility — and that’s having reliable capacity to maintain the type of power structure that we’re so used to. It is difficult to meet that challenge because we are fighting a constant battle with public perception. It’s probably our fault as much as any other utilities, in terms of not educating the populace in general. We are constantly needing to explain why we can’t do it all with renewables or via conservation measures.

We are working to become more united in our response and efforts to convince everybody that we need a mix of not just renewables and conservation, but new inertia back on the system. I think nuclear is going to be the main work dog there, but it could be other resources. There’s still going to be hydro, but that’s going to be small. It is going to be very difficult to move toward storage and other [new technology].

Has there been a shift in the public’s attitude toward nuclear?

UAMPS was one of the only, if not the only one, proposing new nuclear coming into [the project with NuScale]. That has changed now. With the advent of the small modular reactor, it’s allowed the utilities to put this into their future resource plans, which in turn has provided a public forum for debate, if people are opposed to it. That’s a monumental change that’s happened in this last bit, and it gives me great hope that we will be able to turn the corner on this lack of capacity going into the future.

In terms of public education overall, how much further do we have to go in terms of educating customers on other aspects of energy use and needs?

The education is very important, and it has to take on a more specific point — about the infrastructure required to make the transition, such as to electric vehicles. As an example, in Southern California, just electrifying the trucks going in and out of the Los Angeles Harbor area will require a massive investment — hundreds of millions of dollars over a very short period — because we are going to have to be able to fast charge these things, and our current distribution system is not capable of doing that. That is one thing that people aren’t talking about that they really need to be.