Earlier this month, Flathead Electric Co-op announced the retirement of Capital Credits as one of the many benefits to being a member of the Cooperative, and the fact that checks were issued to qualifying members in time for the holidays. Now, members should keep an eye out for an additional check in the form of a refund.
After reviewing the Co-op’s financial position through November, the Board of Trustees voted to return a portion of the Co-op’s 2014 excess margins to the members, based on higher than anticipated revenues and lower than expected operating costs. The individual refund amounts will vary based on a percentage of members’ billing/energy use (refunds under $5 will be credited to members’ accounts).
The additional revenues were generated from record-breaking energy consumption, primarily during an extended cold spell earlier this year that set an all-time record system peak for the Cooperative. Flathead Electric is a not-for-profit business, owned and operated by its customers-otherwise known as members-of the Cooperative. Any profits or margins above operating expenses are paid back to the members through the retirement of capital credits or the issuance of refunds like this one.
At its monthly members’ meeting on January 8, the Executive Committee of the Public Power Council (PPC) elected officers for the 2015-2016 term, and chose FEC’s General Manager, Mark Johnson, as Chairman. Johnson is the first Executive Committee member from Montana to serve in this capacity. PPC Executive Director Scott Corwin said, “PPC is very fortunate to have Johnson at the helm. The Northwest public power community will be very well-served by his expertise and leadership.” Johnson says he is excited for the opportunity to serve. “I look forward to working with the Committee, other member utilities, and the PPC staff to handle the many issues facing public power over the next two years.”
The Public Power Council, established in 1966, is an association that represents over 100 consumer-owned electric utilities in the Pacific Northwest. PPC’s mission is to preserve and protect the benefits of the Federal Columbia River Power System for consumer-owned utilities. Johnson says it is a key forum to identify, discuss and build consensus around energy and utility issues. “There is strength in numbers, so it is important to have these regional connections and conversations. No one utility itself can confront the challenges of BPA rates, regulation mandates and so on by itself. Although we are associated with many regional entities who have varying interests, there is a common goal--to protect the interests of our members.”
Johnson brings longevity to his new role, attending Council meetings since 2006. And Flathead Electric has historically been deemed a leader in the region in terms of power generation, energy efficiency and overall participation with the public power industry. FEC has also generally enjoyed support from its congressional delegation. Johnson says it’s significant that he is the first Chair from Montana. “We are on the eastern side of the Bonneville Power system, as opposed to being situated along the I-5 Corridor, so it’s important that our perspectives be heard.”
The Public Power Council is highly influential in the energy industry. Representatives are frequently called to testify in Washington D.C. on key topics such as the Columbia River Treaty, the Bonneville Power Administration and hydropower, etc… Johnson says he appreciates a seat at the table to do his part in, “keeping power rates affordable for our members.”
Flathead Electric was honored with nine First Place Awards this year from state and regional utility associations, and we have our members to thank for that!
While our employees appreciate the recognition of their work; prevailing in such categories as Best Web Product, News Article, Feature Story, Photography and Communications, much of the credit and pride goes to those of you who partnered with your Co-op in a distinctive way. Here are some highlights:
Best Special Publication - “Member
Each year, Flathead Electric holds an amateur photo contest among our members for production of a calendar. The judges commented: “Not only did this collaboration yield a wonderful product, but it was a creative way to engage people, share their talents and enjoy the beauty of your local area.”
Best Media Campaign - “Local Hero Awards”
One of the important Co-op principles is “Concern for Community” and sponsoring the “Local Hero Awards” (with a local television station) is a great fit because it demonstrates that we are all in this together and that we all want to be part of something good. An example of a deserving recipient is Emma Anderson who, at the tender age of 5, began a very special mission to see that young cancer patients had a soft teddy bear to hug. To date, around 500 bears have been sent throughout the United States and even to impoverished areas of Mexico and Rwanda. In selecting this entry, the judges wrote: “What a unique way to reach out to members and recognize their good deeds. This campaign encourages member participation and positive relationships.
”Life Saver Award - “FEC Employees credited
with Life Saving Response”
A previous article in this publication told the story of how these four men were on duty when fortuitous circumstances helped them discover, tend to and ultimately rescue a critically injured woman. The woman and her doctor believe she would not be here today, had it not been for the heroic efforts of these Co-op employees. The plaques they received from the Montana Electric Co-op Association read: “For citizenship, exemplary of our rural cooperative family, in saving the life of another individual. Their alert, responsive and selfless action serves as a model for us all.”
“I am proud of our employees and members alike. It’s gratifying to see what can happen with teamwork and determination. Kudos all around!” Mark Johnson, Flathead Electric General Manager
Flathead Electric wants to advise its members concerning reports from people who’ve received fraudulent phone calls from solicitors posing as Co-op employees. The imposters ask the consumers to provide credit card or other financial account information and personally identifiable information over the phone. One angle of this scam is to say the consumer owes on his or her account and will have service shut off unless information-such as the number for a prepaid credit card-is provided immediately. It is not the policy of Flathead Electric to ask personal questions of its members or to threaten members with immediate disconnect if there is a balance on their account. The Co-op follows a comprehensive series of procedures with regards to delinquent accounts to find an equitable solution for all concerned. Should you receive a call similar to those reported, do not release your personal information and please notify the Co-op immediately. Local law enforcement agencies should also be advised when illegal activity is suspected. In addition, if you are concerned about protecting yourself from identity theft or feel you may be a victim, you can find more information by visiting the Federal Trade Commission's identity theft site at www.ftc.gov/idtheft
Excerpt from a review of electric rates for regional utilities
by MIKE DENNISON, Lee Newspapers State Bureau
Below is a sampling of the current monthly costs and per-kWh rates for residential customers of major utilities in the Pacific Northwest and neighboring states.
Number Mo. bill charge of customers, Service area @ 800 kWh per-kWh
Power 60,000, Western South Dakota $106.27 12.19 ˘
Portland General Electric
838,000, Portland, NW Oregon $92.56 10.32 ˘
344,000, Western, Central Montana $87.97 10.34 ˘
560,000, Oregon $87.77 9.77 ˘
Rocky Mountain Power (UT)
829,000, northern Utah $82.68 9.71 ˘
Missoula Electric Co-op
11,600, Suburban, rural Missoula $81.20 6.9 ˘
Rocky Mountain Power (WY)
138,000, Southern Wyoming $78.20 7.27 ˘
Snohomish County P.U.D.
325,000, Everett, Wash. $74.08 9.26 ˘
Puget Sound Energy
1.1 million, Western Washington $73.71 8.23 ˘
Flathead Electric Co-op
61,000, Northwestern Montana $72.37 6.28 ˘
Seattle City Light
403,000, Seattle $71.70 8.36 ˘
25,500, Eastern Montana $70.20 8.1 ˘
508,000, Southern Idaho $69.96 8.12 ˘
Tacoma Public Power
171,000, Tacoma, Wash. $67.02 7.69 ˘
241,000, Eastern Washington $66.16 7.27 ˘
Larger public utilities and electric cooperatives tend to charge the lowest rates, because they’re not-for-profit and have access to low-cost power from the federal Bonneville Power Administration. Flathead Electric Co-op charges just 5.94 cents per kWh for the first 600 kWh of monthly consumption.
The Columbia River Basin Fish and Wildlife Program of the Northwest Power and Conservation Council is the largest regional fish and wildlife recovery program in the United States Fire and Power Poles a Dangerous Combination.
Guided by the program, the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) spends a portion of its revenue from electricity sales to protect and enhance fish and wildlife that have been affected by the construction and operation of hydropower dams in the basin. Every five years, the Council revises the program, based largely on recommendations of the region’s fish and wildlife agencies and Indian Tribes. In May, the Council released a draft proposal for public review and comment (as required by the Northwest Power Act) with a final plan to go into effect early this fall.
The program is important to utilities like Flathead Electric,
because while we take our fish and wildlife mitigation obligations
very seriously, it is also our responsibility to provide safe,
reliable and affordable electric service to our members. Testifying
at recent public hearings across the state, Flathead Electric
management, trustees and staff told Council representatives that the
Co-op supports rational science-based fish and wildlife restoration
efforts, balanced with appropriate costs. FEC regulatory analyst,
Russ Schneider, urged the Council to “use a sharp pencil” on the
final program, to honor ratepayer contributions:
“We support the Council’s identification of the 2014 Biological Opinion’s river operations as the foundation for main stem operations in the draft. The Columbia River Basin, and particularly the Flathead and Kootenai River Basins, are very important to the member/ratepayers of Flathead Electric Cooperative. Our members should be recognized for paying about a third of our wholesale power costs for Fish & Wildlife mitigation - and reduced hydropower production - to support a very large partnership of environmental oversight and research. A majority of residents consider hydropower to be the region’s most practical energy resource; but cost control in all spending areas is important to keep this resource affordable and to maintain funding levels. There is a limit on the funding and it should be determined by the quantitative benefit of program implementation, compared with the cost to ratepayers. Bonneville Power Administration funding should be limited by the prioritization process and ratepayer affordability caps. Continued large rate increases are not sustainable.”
For a copy of the draft program, go to http://www.nwcouncil.org/fw/program/2014-03/. The final plan is due to go into effect in September.
An Issue of Growing Concern
Fire and Power Poles a Dangerous Combination
Early this spring, four of Flathead Electric’s power poles were inadvertently set on fire by people conducting debris burns.
And according to Assistant Operations Superintendent, Al Thorson, the problem seems to be on the rise. “I don’t know if this dilemma can be attributed solely to an increase in population, but it seems to be occurring more frequently over the last couple of years.”
For durability through extreme weather events, power poles used by Flathead Electric are treated with a preservative known to be highly resistant to rot. Thorson says they are also, however, highly flammable. “If fire reaches one of these poles, there’s no stopping it. Our crews, along with various fire departments, have already had to respond several times this year.” Just as it’s essential to have power lines located before digging in the ground, Thorson says it is equally important to be aware of the location of power poles and overhead lines on or near your property. “They’re expensive to replace, and when you add labor costs of installation and restoration from power outages that might occur, you have a pricey situation for members and all concerned.”
What is being done to secure the power grid against terrorism at Flathead Electric Cooperative?
That was a question posed by a member at the FEC Annual Meeting in March, and it’s a timely one because the issue has come to the forefront with a recent report in the Wall Street Journal. The report projects that the U.S. could suffer a coast-to coast blackout if saboteurs knocked out just nine—four in the East, three in the West and two in Texas—of the country’s 55,000 electric-transmission substations on a scorching summer day. The article went on to say the forecast is based on a FERC (Federal Energy Regulatory Commission) analysis indicating the loss of those key substations could plunge the country into darkness for weeks, if not months.
Some federal officials say those conclusions overstate the grid’s vulnerability, and Flathead Electric’s Director of Engineering, Jason Williams, says he is skeptical as well. “Let’s look at what happened in California, for example. Snipers shot holes into the cooling systems sustaining 17 giant transformers that supply all of Silicon Valley. Although the transformers were destroyed, Pacific Gas & Electric (the utility that operates those transformers) was able to avoid a large scale outage by rerouting power from another source.”
Williams says smaller utilities, like Flathead Electric, are less likely to be the target of terrorist activities, because while an attack on our system would impact members in this service territory, it would have no effect on the national grid. “Unlike the massive utilities that intertie with each other for generation and transmission, we are isolated within our own infrastructure.”
Some of the most difficult decisions facing utilities today concern security measures and weighing the costs versus the benefits. Flathead Electric could fortify its substations like Fort Knox-increasing rates drastically-but if the transmission system that delivers our power supply were compromised, it would all have been an effort in futility.
That said, however, the Co-op has a strong culture of safety and security and continuously evaluates system protection. “We are both proactive and reactive to mitigating risks regarding changing technologies, regulations and all of the various industry dynamics” says Williams. “We enforce all required codes, we have contingency plans in place and two-way communications. We regularly inspect and monitor our substations and equipment and we have surveillance of Co-op property. Our data is backed up daily at a separate undisclosed location; we have alternate meeting sites and otherwise do everything we think makes sense financially and practically for Flathead Electric.”
Williams says we are more susceptible to outages from weather events than we are from terrorist activity, but either way power would be restored in a conventional manner. “There’s no guarantee on how quickly we could reenergize, depending on the magnitude of the situation, but we have redundancy built into the system. So we would identify the problem area, redirect power and activate one line at a time, just as it would be done on a national level. If need be, we would request aid from a neighboring utility and borrow a transformer or other supplies if ours were damaged. There’s strength in numbers and while we Montanans are typically very independent and resourceful, we also extend our cooperative principles to our neighbors, be they in our local communities, throughout the region, or to our fellow Americans across the country. The adage is true that “united we stand.”
Your Cooperative’s board of directors and employees would like to thank Flathead Electric member/owners for rewarding the Co-op with a score of 81 out of 100 in the recent American Customer Service Index (ACSI) survey. Your feedback compares Flathead Electric Cooperative favorably to the Cooperative Difference Survey National Benchmark group - also scoring 81. Flathead Electric outperformed on several levels relating to aggregate scores for investor-owned utilities, municipal electric companies and the energy utility sector, which all scored in the mid to high 70s.
Developed by the American Society for Quality, by the University of Michigan School of Business and CFI group that measures customer satisfaction in 200 leading corporations, the ACSI is the only independent national standard of customer satisfaction available in the United States. Flathead Electric uses this survey to weigh against other utilities and make sure we are aligning our goals to continue doing what we do well and to improve in areas where we may be falling short.
401 members participated in the survey and had the opportunity to offer additional comments to several of the questions. The Co-op scored relatively strong in areas such as helping members manage their costs, keeping members informed when working in their area and communicating to them about rising costs. Demographic information offered valuable insights to the technology attributes of our membership, finding that the majority of members own either a desktop or laptop computer; 34% own a “smart phone” like a Droid or iPhone, and 46% of membership participates in online social networking sites. We were pleased to find out that 79% have taken steps to reduce home electricity usage, and more than 80% of members have at least one energy saving compact fluorescent bulb in their home- with over 50% having six or more. 70% of members read at least some of this newsletter. Thank you!
While this is a customer satisfaction survey, Flathead Electric Cooperative’s member/owners are much more than just customers. Ken Sugden, FEC General Manager states: “This is an important distinction with Cooperatives, and one of the most significant findings in this survey was that 57% of our membership views themselves only as a customer, particularly younger members of the Co-op. We definitely need to better communicate to everyone the fact that member/owners have a voice in how this Co-op operates and emphasize that this is a not-for-profit business looking out for everyone’s best interests to keep rates stable and electricity reliable. “
That is the Cooperative Difference
Flathead Electric Cooperative’s primary power supply is hydropower purchased from the Bonneville Power Administration. We are extremely fortunate to have this low cost, clean resource. It is important for all of us to understand what dynamics exist that could put this essential resource in jeopardy, however, and we will do our best to keep you informed.
A public education effort, called CleanHydro, is being coordinated by Northwest RiverPartners , an alliance of utilities, ports, businesses and farming organizations, that advocate for a balanced approach to managing the federal hydropower system on the Columbia and Snake Rivers. Other regional and national organizations with a stake in hydropower and river commerce are also supporting the effort to educate the public about these resources and their benefits.
Terry Flores, Executive Director of RiverPartners, noted that the organization’s public opinion surveys show a lack of understanding and appreciation for the tremendous value that the Columbia and Snake River system brings to the Northwest, both economically and environmentally. “For those of us who grew up in the Northwest, it was always a given that hydropower was the premier renewable energy source; and the energy production benefits of our dams were also well known.”
Today, Flores says, there is a whole new audience that needs to be educated: “Many people have moved into the Northwest from other places, and younger generations know very little about hydropower and the river system’s contributions. They didn’t grow up with them. Hydropower doesn’t have the kind of ingrained recognition it once did. So in a sense, we’re reintroducing – and reminding – the public of the tremendous value these resources bring to our lives.”
And with a changing energy industry, hydropower has been overlooked in recent years. “We’ve seen huge growth in other renewable sources of energy, particularly wind. These have been so prominent in the popular media that it’s given rise to a perception that they are the only renewables out there,” Flores said. “We just want to make sure that hydropower is considered in the same context.”
Besides accountingfor 90 percent of the region’s renewable energy, the system of dams and locks on the Columbia and Snake Rivers create a river highway allowing billions of dollars of goods to be transported by barge, creating thousands of jobs and boosting the economy. The hydropower system allows crops grown by local farmers to feed the Northwest and the world. “We have a great story to tell,” Flores noted. “It simply hasn’t been getting out – now it will.”
For more information, visit CleanHydro.com.
“Flathead Electric’s gas-to-energy facility has the highest uptime capacity in our fleet and one of the highest in the nation.” That’s according to Carl Cortez, Project Director for SCS Energy.
SCS Energy, which specializes in landfill projects on an international scale, installed the system in 2009 and continues to operate the facility at the Flathead County Landfill. Citing a successful business partnership, the FEC Board of Trustees has voted unanimously to renew their contract.
“Initially, this project operated at roughly 96% of capacity and that figure has grown to 99% so far in 2012.” That’s remarkable, Cortez says, especially in light of the extreme weather conditions here in northwest Montana.
The gas-to-energy facility has also surpassed power production
“We’ve gone from producing enough power to energize 900 homes in the Flathead Valley up to approximately 1,600 homes, which is ahead of where we anticipated performance to be at this juncture.”
Funded through Clean Renewable Energy Bonds (CREBS), awarded to Flathead Electric in the amount of $3.5 million, the system (the first of its kind in Montana) utilizes a vacuum system to draw the methane gas from the waste within the landfill. Once the gas is captured, it is filtered to remove liquid and particulates, then burned in a 20-cylinder engine. The burning methane drives a 1.6 megawatt electric generator, connected directly to Flathead Electric’s distribution system.
The process has additional value, in that it allows the Solid Waste District to be in compliance with environmental mandates, by preventing methane (a greenhouse gas more potent than carbon dioxide) from escaping into the atmosphere or leaking into groundwater under the landfill. Another significant bonus is that since methane gas results from decaying garbage, there will continue to be an ample supply of fuel, as the landfill expands into the future.
Okay, so asking members to actually “embrace their blinks” may be a stretch (resetting clocks is a hassle after all), but it is important to at least understand why your lights sometimes dim or blink, especially during inclement weather. The power lines that serve your home have a variety of protective devices designed to keep your power on during storms. There are several reasons your lights might blink during a storm, but the most common cause is tree movement. Despite our best efforts to keep trees near our lines trimmed on a regular basis, strong winds can cause those trees to make contact with wires. When that happens, your lights may dim, or you might lose power for a few seconds as the system operates to identify and clear the problem. Without the protective equipment, members could experience a prolonged outage instead. If you have an ongoing reason for concern however, don’t hesitate to contact your Cooperative.
Updated: Friday, February 06, 2015