American Public Power Association: A Smart Way to Deliver Power
Public power communities plug into smart grid technology.
Steve Stackhouse-Kaelble, Staff Editor, Area Development (Winter 2011)

Communities Make Public Power Strides

Around the country, public power utilities large and small are making impressive advances in smart grid technology, sustainable energy, and other innovative programs. Read on to meet these resourceful communities.

Next: Orlando

Orlando, Florida (2/11)

Walt Disney World's Epcot Center was designed as the "city of tomorrow," but tomorrow has already arrived elsewhere in Orlando. Local power provider OUC (called The Reliable One by locals), teamed up with the Orlando Science Center to put a 31-kilowatt solar array atop the museum's CineDome. The system puts out enough energy to power a few homes and will save the museum a significant sum during its estimated 25-year lifespan. More importantly, it will serve as a demonstration project to inspire other Floridians to pursue solar power generation.

Next: Nebraska

Nebraska Public Power District (3/11)

In Nebraska, where public power is a way of life, the Nebraska Public Power District (NPPD) wants to increase renewable energy use to cover at least 10 percent of its customers' needs by 2020. By the end of 2012, the provider will be nearly halfway there. NPPD owns and operates its own wind energy facility and also buys wind power from other providers. The organization is lining up more sources of wind power in pursuit of its renewable goal.

Next: Payson

Payson, Utah (4/11)

At a time when some cities are turning off streetlights to save money, a group of Utah public power communities is keeping the lights on by replacing them with super-efficient LED fixtures. Hundreds of fixtures are slated for upgrades, thanks to a federal grant that is helping pay the bill. So far, the savings have added up. The community of Payson is upgrading 130 of its 550 streetlights and expects to save $4,000 a year in energy costs. The LEDs last far longer than conventional lights, also saving on the cost of replacements and the manpower required to replace burned-out bulbs.

Next: North Carolina

North Carolina Public Power (5/11)

Knowledge is power, so knowledge about power must be, well, powerful. That's why North Carolina Public Power backers including ElectriCities are trying to get the word out about energy efficiency. A series of videos about energy efficiency is designed to help affiliated utilities educate their customers about reducing costs and conserving energy. The videos can be viewed at North Carolina Public Power's YouTube channel,

Next: San Antonio

CPS Energy, San Antonio (6/11)

The New Year is here, and with it the perennial resolution to eat less. CPS Energy in San Antonio is resolving to consume less, too - electricity, that is. The goal is to save 58 megawatts in 2011, part of the utility's Save for Tomorrow Energy Plan (STEP), which aims to slash consumption by the equivalent of a whole power plant by 2020. It's ambitious, but the utility and its customers proved it feasible last year when they shattered a 45-megawatt goal by saving 76 megawatts. They accomplished it with everything from increased insulation to more efficient appliances and the installation of solar generation and hot water systems.

Next: Kirkwood

Kirkwood, Missouri (7/11)

Kirkwood, a St. Louis suburb, has been around for generations, which means it's shaded by lots of big, old trees. While the backdrop is beautiful, it also means lots of downed limbs after storms, and lots of work for tree trimmers. It also represents a large supply of wood waste to fuel a proposed biomass power plant. The Kirkwood Green project will convert wood waste into a synthetic gas that will be burned cleanly to generate electricity. The facility could produce enough power to serve 5,000 homes, reducing the city's reliance on coal-fueled electricity. The city is already improving its efficiency by purchasing power from Missouri wind farms.

Next: Springfield

City Utilities of Springfield, Missouri (8/11)

In Missouri, City Utilities of Springfield is helping business customers see the light. That's why the public power provider is doling out rebates for those who replace old lighting fixtures with new 25- to 28-watt T8 lamps and electronic ballasts. The program offers commercial customers up to $5,000 per year for pursuing the upgrades. The new lights use less energy and emit less heat, but also generate more light than the fixtures they typically replace.

Next: South Carolina

Santee Cooper, South Carolina (9/11)

Santee Cooper, South Carolina's state-owned electric and water utility and largest power producer, is helping its business customers trim their power usage. Its Reduce the Use program blends business initiatives and rebates targeted at the state's biggest power users. The program is first focusing on four key areas: lighting, HVAC, building envelope, and commercial refrigeration. Businesses that participate can earn rebates worth thousands of dollars - before they even start saving on their electric bills. That's a smart way to cut costs - and emissions.

Next: Sacramento

Sacramento Municipal Utility District (10/11)

"Smart metering" is the way of the future for utilities. Cutting-edge smart meters give commercial power users optimal control over power consumption by providing detailed usage information and options for improving efficiency and slashing costs. The Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD) is installing these state-of-the-art meters in all homes and businesses. It expects to replace all of these meters by the end of this year. With each new meter installed, users will discover energy savings, reduced costs, and greater reliability. In the future, smart meters will be able to communicate with programmable appliances, such as air conditioners, to let users break down power costs by item.

It's been four years since the first iPhone was introduced, and while it was immediately hailed as revolutionary, many consumers saw it as merely a cell phone with a built-in media player. Today, the device has morphed into a powerful handheld computer, a portable gaming device, a GPS system, and dozens of other tools. Apps developed since the device's launch do everything from the goofy to the astonishing. One app lets users point and view a foreign-language sign on the phone's display, where the words are instantly translated into English. Who could have imagined?

Dawn of the Smart Grid
Glenn Steiger, general manager of Glendale Water and Power in California, views the dawn of the electric smart grid similarly to the advent of the iPhone. Smart grids are bringing incredible new technology to electric distribution systems, but he's certain that the most exciting advantages have not yet been imagined. He says of the iPhone, "more applications are being developed every day. We expect the same thing with the smart grid."

Steiger is one of the visionaries guiding a growing smart grid movement among publicly owned power utilities. In his community, federal stimulus funding is helping to deploy smart grid technology rapidly.

Glendale Water and Power is a prime example of a public power utility living on the cutting edge - which happens to be where many such utilities like to live. Some Americans wrongly assume that public power providers, since they are government-linked entities, must be behind the times. But public power - which tends to be inexpensive and highly reliable - has forward-thinking providers that are responsive to both business and residential needs.

That's why public power utilities are eager to plug into the future with smart grid technology.

So what's so smart about the smart grid? "It gives customers far more choices in how they deal with the utility," Steiger says. "It allows them to save money and control various applications in their homes and businesses."

Smart grid technology adds sophisticated meters and controls to the power system. Smart meters remain in constant contact with the utility's central control systems, providing real-time data on power usage and issues. In Glendale, wireless meters communicate with each other, as well as data collection points that are hooked into the central office via fiber optic cable.

The availability of sophisticated data means customers can better monitor and control their power usage right now, not a month from now when the bill arrives. "We know what a customer is using, and the customer also sees the data," Steiger says. Smart grids also integrate well with green technologies such as electric vehicles and solar applications.

Additionally, the technology helps the utility monitor the power network for trouble. "Today, when your lights go out, you call us and we fix it. With a smart grid, we know where the outages are, and we can fix most outages without even sending a crew out," Steiger says. "The distribution system will be mostly self-healing."

That kind of reliability - along with empowering customers to take control of their usage and encouraging efficiency - were some of the goals of the smart grid project in Leesburg, Florida. Leesburg got into the smart grid game as a way to combat skyrocketing wholesale power costs. A 2008 business plan projected operational savings of $900,000 for the electric system and $400,000 for the city's water system. In 2009, the city was one of 33 public power providers to land a smart grid grant from the U.S. Department of Energy under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. The grant helps the community install smart meters for its 23,000 customers, along with more than 4,000 energy-management systems that give customers new control over air conditioners, water heaters, and other electric devices.

In Glendale, the smart grid is flowing into the water system and the electric delivery network. "On the water side, it gives customers the ability to control how they use water, when they use water, and they'll know instantly if they have a leak," Steiger says. Whether power or water, the smart grid brings the utility operation into the 21st century. "We have been a mechanically oriented business. This changes us to be a much more IT software-driven business."

The Fiber Connection
Improved data services often accompany the move to smart grid. Such has been the case with EPB, the municipal power system of Chattanooga, Tennessee. "Conceived five years ago, EPB's fiber system was built to help modernize the electric system, to stimulate economic development and to provide triple play services - voice, video, and data - at reasonable rates to those residential and business customers wishing to purchase them," says Harold E. DePriest, the utility's president and CEO. In the past few years, the utility has installed some 5,000 fiber miles, part of what it says is the country's largest and most powerful fiber-to-the-home system. All homes and businesses now have access to 1 gigabit Internet service, a claim that DePriest says only a couple of other global locations can make.

"Just over a year ago, EPB received a $111 million grant from the Department of Energy to build out its smart grid, including 170,000 smart meters and 1,500 intelligent 12 kilovolt switches designed to reduce outage times by over 40 percent," DePriest says. "In the last 15 months, EPB has signed up over 20,000 fiber customers and installed over 35,000 smart meters."

Operations are getting smarter in Ponca City, Oklahoma, too, says Craig Stephenson, city manager. "The city made a determination in the early 2000s to enhance its technology footprint," he says. "The city began installing fiber optic cable to connect its facilities for operational efficiencies. City staff spent several years studying automation of their meter reading process. In 2006, the city began a wholesale change-out of all electric and water meters in its system to an automated system."

As in Chattanooga, Ponca City's smart network also translates into superior Internet service. The city offers broadband over dedicated fiber for businesses requiring more bandwidth, and additionally, "Ponca City citizens are given free wireless Internet everywhere in town and at home over a wireless mesh network from Tropos Networks," says Craige Baird, technology services director.

Dealing with Public Power
Keep in mind that these sophisticated and attractive services aren't being provided by big energy conglomerates - they're products of municipal power systems, and not necessarily big ones at that. While Glendale's population is just over 200,000 and Chattanooga's is slightly under that figure, Ponca City counts fewer than 30,000 residents, all served well by technology. But it's not surprising: of the 2,008 public power systems in the United States, 1,400 serve communities with populations under 10,000.

But size does not really matter when it comes to public power. It's accountability and profit motive - or lack thereof. "We're not profit-driven. We're not stockholder- or stock-price-driven," says Steiger, who has also worked at for-profit energy companies. "Our driver is customer satisfaction."

"Without the urgency of a short-term profit motive, EPB has been able to invest in state-of-the-art technology for a long-term payback to the community at large," DePriest says.

DePriest lists what he considers the strengths of public power communities. "Low rates are obvious, but of equal significance is their responsiveness to the needs of their customers and communities," he says. "As a local business with open meetings and a board of local community leaders, public power companies are sensitive to the needs of their customers and readily available when problems develop."

"Public power utilities are far more responsive and more in tune with their communities because we are the community," Steiger says. "We have an obligation to serve the customers."

Stephenson explains how it works in Ponca City. "The users of the utility have access on a regular basis to the policymakers, rate-setters, and decision-makers. The users elect the governing body of their utility, and as such have the ability to direct change much more readily than a large, investor-owned utility that is stockholder-driven," he says, noting that stockholders of an investor-owned utility often are not even customers of the utilities that they own.

About those costs: private power companies charge residential rates an average of approximately 14 percent higher than the public power sector, according to American Public Power Association (APPA) statistics. And it isn't just a matter of not having to pay taxes. Public power providers typically share payments-in-lieu-of-taxes and other contributions with their communities, and those average 15 percent higher than the taxes private utilities pay.

Helping Business
Ponca City is a small town, says David Myers, economic development executive director of the Ponca City Development Authority. And that promotes strong ties between business and local government. "As a result, we're able to be far more responsive to the needs and issues that our business community has. Our goal is to enhance an already thriving local economy, and that drives the decisions the utility makes." Public power providers have found a wealth of ways to help their business customers thrive. Here are just a few examples:

• In sunny Florida, the municipal utility in Tallahassee offers "net metering." It's for those who have rooftop solar photovoltaic panels, and it allows these customers' electric meters to essentially spin backwards when their solar panels are producing more power than they need. That power goes back into the grid for someone else to use. The customer with the solar panels benefits from lower bills, as the utility pays full retail value for this excess power.

• The Long Island Power Authority in New York has a host of programs to help business customers, from special discounts to energy-efficiency assistance. One program targets those who seek to create energy-efficient buildings, offering up to $10,000 worth of technical assistance and incentives covering a portion of the additional design and equipment expenses that building these structures requires.

• WPPI Energy, which serves 52 customer-owned utilities in and around Wisconsin, has the answer for businesses that can't afford even the briefest power outage. An on-site backup generator provides reliable standby service without the need for major capital outlays because WPPI owns, installs, and maintains the generator. WPPI established this service because it will use the generator itself during peak energy usage times as a precaution.

• Seattle City Light's Lighting Design Lab helps businesses transform their way to more efficient lighting. It offers consultations and demonstrations, product information, a mockup facility, and a daylighting lab.

• In Eugene, Oregon, the Emerald People's Utility District goes by the tagline, "The People's Power." But the utility likes businesspeople, too, including those who bring industrial facilities to town. The utility offers incentives to encourage efficiency projects in industrial settings, among other programs.

Public Power and Economic Development
It's not uncommon for utilities to take an interest in economic development. A growing customer base is good for any power business. Public power systems tend to have close ties to their communities' economic development efforts, especially since utilities and development offices sometimes overlap in local government, and could be neighbors in the same building.

"The utility is a very vital player in attracting business to the area," says Myers in Ponca City. "Utility rates are kept low, with a recognition that the needs of businesses and residents must be kept in harmony for a prosperous local economy."

"EPB plays several roles in the economic development of the region, both in terms of supplying electric and communications infrastructure, and in assisting prospective businesses to understand and select the best rates, and by providing the needed infrastructure to meet the most ambitious construction schedules," says DePriest in Chattanooga.

Enhancing Chattanooga's quality of life is central to the utility's mission. "Developing the local economy is a major part of this process," DePriest says. "By concentrating on reasonable electric rates, high reliability, and the most powerful fiber-based broadband network in the country, EPB can utilize its technical strengths for the good of the entire community."

More About Public Power
The American Public Power Association serves the country's more than 2,000 community-owned electric utilities, which together serve more than 45 million Americans. Find lists of and links to public power communities, along with information about doing business in a public power community, at the organization's website,