The American Public Power Association (APPA) is pleased to publish our latest three-part Public Power Current newsletter series this week, on small town innovation.
Thank you to the small utility systems across America who were eager to share their stories on planning for growth (Part 1), prioritizing safety and reliability initiatives (Part 2), and deploying new technologies (Part 3).
Colin Hansen, now CEO and General Manager of the Kansas Power Pool, has spent his tenure as Chair of APPA’s Board of Directors spotlighting the many accomplishments of small public power systems from coast to coast. Of America’s 2,000 public power systems, 82 percent serve fewer than 10,000 customers. “One of the things that has made my job serving the Kansas public power community so interesting – and yet so challenging – is its defining characteristic: size.” The median size of the 118 public power systems in Kansas is a utility that serves only 920 customers.
Following APPA’s Engineering and Operations Conference in Austin, Texas in late March – where Hansen showcased some of the stories featured here this week – we wanted to share how big ideas can come from small places.
“Small public power systems across the country are doing some really incredible things on the engineering and operations side of the business, all while making a huge difference in their communities too,” Hansen said. Despite ongoing concerns over supply chain issues, or how to maintain that small town charm while promoting and accommodating growth, and solving external reliability problems by looking internally, “public power systems – both small and large – are about living with urgency and focusing on how to not only persevere but excel in extremely challenging situations,” he shared.
Mount Pleasant, Utah
Public power is popular and successful in many of Utah’s small towns. One such town is Mount Pleasant in Sanpete County, where the power department serves about 2,300 meters [population: 3,698].
Public power is so well-liked in Mount Pleasant that when a former mayor proposed selling the city utility to a large investor-owned utility, the citizens pushed back, making it overwhelmingly clear they wanted to keep their power department. The divestiture effort failed.
That was a difficult period, said Power Superintendent Shane Ward. “But one benefit that came out of it was we did a whole system value appraisal to determine the real value of our system. We were offered $8 million and the value turned out to be $33 million. Not many people had recognized the great value of our public power system.”
Today, the power department is coping with rapid population growth, and has been very progressive in modernizing and updating the system. “When I started in 2002, we were hooking up 10-20 new services a year,” said Ward. “But in the last two years, we’ve hooked up more than 200 meters.” Utah has been the nation’s fastest-growing state over the past decade, according to the U.S. Census.
The power department received a big surprise when the COVID-19 pandemic hit Utah and the rest of the country.
Mount Pleasant is nestled at the base of the scenic Manti La Sal National Forest and its power utility serves three fairly large gated recreational property/cabin developments up on the mountain outside of city boundaries. Most cabin owners live full time in Utah’s larger cities and traditionally used their getaway properties sporadically, usually on weekends or holidays. But when the pandemic hit, many owners moved full-time to the country.
“Our load tripled almost overnight,” Ward said. “Hundreds of people moved to their cabins and stayed.” The sudden demand overwhelmed the system and a transformer failed. “We had to borrow a transformer when ours went down and we had to switch it in overnight. We were told by a larger utility that it would be impossible to do it that fast, but we did it. It was a long night, but the next day power was restored at a much higher load level.”
For a long-term solution, Mount Pleasant obtained a $300,000 CARES Act grant and installed a new transformer, three new regulators, new switching gear and two laminated transmission poles. “Now we can serve all those cabins in the three gated subdivisions,” Ward said. A large line out to the city industrial park was also added.
To deal with growth, the city also installed a new substation and saved more than $250,000 by buying a Mobile Integrated Transportable Substation (MITS). It all came on one big skid. “We set it on a pad and hooked it up and it was off and running,” said Ward. “Installation was pretty easy, and we saved $250,000 with the MITS compared to a site-built substation. That’s a substantial savings for a small town.”
The power department has also upgraded four small hydro plants that are powered by Pleasant Creek, which runs down a mountain canyon. The oldest hydro plant was constructed back in 1911, another in 1939, and the final two in 1992 and 1993. The city is also planning to develop micro-hydro powered by a new irrigation system.
Ward said a really helpful step forward was developing a long-term strategic plan with support from the Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems and Hometown Connections. The department is now working on a rate study and a compensation study to help retain good employees.
For a small town, Mount Pleasant is taking progressive steps forward to a bright future.
Hyrum is a small city in the scenic Cache Valley in northern Utah. The Power & Light Department has had a big challenge staying ahead of rapid population growth.
But with a mayor and city council who are very supportive of public power and who want to provide the best customer service possible, the department has taken major steps to modernize the electrical system.
One big step forward was the recent completion of a remote radio frequency (RF) meter-reading project. It cost $380,000 for 3,000 meters, which was a big lift for a small city. But the result has been better customer service, faster response to outages, and savings in time, personnel and money.
“It was a big project and big investment, but it will save us money, not cost us money,” said Power Superintendent Matt Draper. “It has really helped the department. We upgraded all meters in the system and the result will be cost savings and less stress for our crew, plus a lot of other benefits.”
The system monitors each meter and quickly notifies of outages and bad connections, whether one home, a neighborhood, or larger area. The system helps homeowners better monitor and reduce their power usage. “If someone complains about an unexpectedly high bill, we can show them their usage and why their cost is higher than usual,” said Draper. “If an account has to be turned off because someone doesn’t pay their power bill, we can leave them enough power to run a furnace in the winter.”
The system keeps all data for three years, so the department can see trends and patterns, project future upgrades and demand, and plan accordingly.
Today, Hyrum Power & Light is serving 4,000 meters, and is growing very rapidly, adding 10-20 new houses a week. The city population was about 7,000 in 2014 and is now over 10,000. Hyrum also serves two large commercial customers, a meat-packing plant that slaughters 3,500 beef cows a day, and a big dairy that produces three million pounds of butter a week, in addition to other products. Those commercial customers alone add 4 megawatts to Hyrum’s load.
Hyrum Power & Light has to move fast to keep up with growth. They are installing a 7.5 megawatt (MW) natural gas generator for backup and to shave off peak supply needs. The department also recently upgraded the city hydropower plant on the Blacksmith Fork River, which was originally constructed in 1928. A new transmission line is under construction, and three employees, including two linemen, have been hired.
Business is booming in Hyrum, along with population growth, and the power department is in a sprint to keep up.
Sandersville is one of the 49 cities within MEAG Power with a population of 5,813, though their daytime population is probably more than double that. The City of Sandersville is working with the Development Authority of Washington County to develop the Fall Line East Industrial Park, managed by the Development Authority, as a joint economic development effort.
Judy McCorkle, City Administrator, said the Bitcoin mining industry located in Sandersville could become the largest user on MEAG Power’s system given the industry’s rapid growth. For Sandersville, it will account for 200-300 MW of power demand, while Sandersville itself only runs on 25 MW of power.
MEAG Power is working to build a new substation to serve the Mawson Infrastructure Group, the cryptocurrency group, with rates designed to recover all associated costs.
Mawson is developing 16 acres within the industrial park, having completed 5 acres so far, now at 45 MW demand. Sandersville also just signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Project Shield, a major medical Personal Protective Equipment manufacturer, that will be located in the Fall Line East Industrial Park as well, and bring 563 jobs to the community.
In early March 2022, Mawson announced the expansion of its Sandersville bitcoin mining facility to 230 MW.
Following on from successful electrical load and associated infrastructure studies carried out by MEAG Power, the Electric Cities of Georgia (ECG), the City of Sandersville and Mawson, the site has been approved for expansion.
Norcross Power, Georgia
Norcross Power serves approximately 5,000 customers. Located northeast of Atlanta, Norcross was established in 1870 and is known for its authentic small-town southern charm. The downtown district thrives and serves residents and visitors with upscale, modern businesses housed in century-old buildings.
The utility is constantly looking at opportunities to spur investments in the city that create jobs and promote the growth of the local economy while enhancing the overall quality of life enjoyed by Norcross residents and visitors.
Norcross was in need of replacing an existing AMI deployment from 2010. Technology and a complete system upgrade dictated that a change was to be made in the next two years. All meters were changed out, and all meters that were capable of remote disconnect were ordered in that configuration. The installed cost was $1.2 million. The Tantalus system will allow for an outage notification system that will populate a meter status map advising us of both large and small scale outages. This will make repairs more expedient and thorough. Also, using this meter technology allows for future time-of-use rates and demand response for commercial and industrial customers.
Norcross was contacted by the energy manager for Amazon and then partnered with Electric Cities of Georgia to assist with the bidding process for the load. MEAG Power was also a large part of the process- as a sub-station bay would need to be added for the load.
After the bid had been awarded to Norcross Power, material was expedited and installation took place at a feverish pace to meet their needs. Infrastructure was expanded when Amazon informed that they were planning on changing their delivery fleet to an EV platform in years to come. This was great news to the utility and we are currently awaiting that part of the project to be initiated by Amazon.
Meanwhile, in New England, the Vermont Public Power Supply Authority (VPPSA) is coordinating with Swanton Village [customers: 3,800] to maximize the value of its hydroelectric facility.
Hydropower operators are evaluating each turbine to determine the most efficient water flow rate. VPPSA then communicates when to implement those efficiencies so as to achieve the highest value of hydro generation.
VPPSA members can tout an electric generation profile that is 60 percent renewable and 90 percent carbon free. Customers that switch from fossil fuel to electricity reduce greenhouse gas emissions and save on their energy bills due to the affordable electricity many VPPSA members offer.
Two commercial and industrial customers completed energy transformation projects with financial assistance from VPPSA members.
A furniture manufacturer offset 41,666 annual gallons of diesel by completing a transformer upgrade with Lyndonville Electric Department [customers: 5,800]. Lyndonville Electric Department provided a financial incentive to cover a significant portion of the project cost.
Similarly, a maple sugaring operation in Barton [customers: 2,100] chose to connect to the grid rather than use diesel generators for sap collection from its 12,000 taps. Barton Electric provided 20% of the cost of the line extension, eliminating the need for 2,330 annual gallons of diesel.