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Steps Taken to Boost Reliability Detailed by New Smyrna Beach Utilities

Florida public power utility New Smyrna Beach Utilities has experienced dramatic reliability improvements and in a recent interview with the American Public Power Association, Joseph Bunch, General Manager and CEO for the utility, detailed the steps the utility has taken in recent years to improve reliability.

Bunch commented on this and other topics in a recent interview with APPA’s Public Power Now podcast.

In 2020 the utility “had a consultant work with us to do a system wide assessment and we developed reliability improvement plans, which included improving the reliability of every single feeder circuit on our system,” he noted in the podcast interview.

“And over the next three years, we set about installing equipment like reclosers and trip savers that while it helped reduce the number of outages, when outages did occur or would occur, it also reduced the number of customers affected by any outage and help speed up the restoration.”

Also, “there were some other basic blocking and tackling aspects" that Florida Municipal Power Agency "helped us with, like firming up our maintenance plans for vegetation management, tree trimming, our periodic overhead inspections and things of that nature,” he noted.  

“So it was an Electric Reliability Improvement plan, which we called ERIP -- we set three-year goals in place.”

After three years of improvement efforts “we reduced the frequency of outages by somewhere in the neighborhood of 40% -- I don't remember the exact number -- I believe it was 41% and on the duration side, which is SAIDI, we reduced that by 32%,” he noted.  

“But I will say if we went back for a further look back to as far as say around 2015, and looked at a five-year average, those numbers were actually improved by a good deal more than I just stated. So the things like tree trimming and inspection programs that we did in year one started having an immediate impact,” Bunch said.    

“Between modernization planning and the electric reliability improvement program, we have done a lot to improve reliability,” he said.

History and Profile of Utility

In the interview, Bunch noted that the utility has “on the electric side of our business a little over 30,000 customers, 30,500 and about 29,000 water customers. We’re a combined utility, so we have both.”  

Another thing that's unique “I think for us is although there are 30 public power utilities in Florida, we're one of five or six that have a separate Commissioner authority,” he said. 

“We have a governing Commission of five Commissioners that are appointed by the city Commission, but we do have separate budgets, separate governance and separate Commission meetings by which we run and govern our utility.”

The utility was formed in 1967 through a referendum vote, “and so we've been in place now for about 57 or so years...and we're dedicated to serving our community.”

Like many public power utilities, “most of our employees live in the city or around the city, and if not there, a couple of the adjacent communities with a short drive away, so a lot of pride in serving our customers,” he noted.

“We've done a lot to improve engagement with the community, volunteerism, charitable giving and all those sorts of things. So it's a really enthusiastic group of employees that for the last 5 1/2 years I've been very proud to have the opportunity to lead.”

Renewable Energy and FMPA Membership

In the podcast interview, Bunch also addressed the topic of renewable energy and how the utility benefits from its membership in the Florida Municipal Power Agency.

In July of last year FMPA announced a major expansion of what's known as the Florida Municipal Solar Project. New Smyrna Beach Utilities is one of 20 Florida municipal electric utilities that will purchase power from the project.  

Bunch was asked to detail how New Smyrna Beach Utilities benefits from being a member of FMPA, not only in terms of adding renewable energy supplies to its overall energy supply portfolio, but in other ways as well.

“I consider us like a medium sized municipal -- 30,000 electric customers -- we're not big, we don't have huge employee resource pools and we don't have tons of capital money,” he said.

“But when partnering with 16 or 18 or 20 other utilities with our interagency partner FMPA, all the sudden you've got those pooled assets and when you go to bid, we're bidding hundreds of megawatts of solar capacity and we're planning on building multiple fields and actually FMPA is in the third phase now,” he noted.

“So you get the synergies and benefits of scale that we couldn't otherwise get by ourselves and for us to go out and try to find partners to team up with on something like this would be difficult -- not impossible, but difficult,” Bunch said.

“And we've also compared the cost of doing this with FMPA to doing it on our own and we've just decided that this asset light model where we partner with FMPA and our peer utilities in the state serves us much better,” he noted.

“And honestly, it allows us to focus on improving our system and improving customer service and not procuring land, buying solar panels and installing and maintaining assets so the purchase power version of that was much more attractive to us.”

He noted that while the utility has some generation, “we largely don't utilize it because it's older diesel.”  

The majority “of our power is actually through purchase power contracts and we also have a mix of solar and some nuclear through that as well and with FMPA while we were talking about solar, we have a fractional ownership in a Florida nuclear plant as well through FMPA and again not impossible, but it would it be difficult for us to negotiate that type of thing and we've had fractional ownership of that plant since the 1980s, and it's very reliable,” he said.

“And it's a nice mix in our generation [and] as things like the price of gas goes up and down...the solar and nuclear help provide stability in our power pricing.”

A transcript of the interview with Bunch is available on APPA’s website.

In April, Bunch announced that he would be retiring from normal duties in July. 

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