Dawson Public Power proud to be publicly owned

A Dawson Public Power District lineman demonstrates to a visiting group the proper procedures when working on the lines. DPPD has several training lines on site where linemen can learn the basics before working on electrified lines.

LEXINGTON — Nebraska is the only state to be served entirely by public power and the Dawson Public Power District is proud of this fact and to serve their region of Central Nebraska.

Dawson Public Power District, DPPD, held their annual customer tour of their facility south of Lexington on Tuesday, June 25. During the tour DPPD electrical services and policies were explained, safety demonstrations held and people could ask questions about public power.

“An informed customer is our greatest asset,” said DPPD general manager Gwen Kautz.

DPPD was organized in February 1937 as a part of the Rural Electrification Act passed by President Franklin Roosevelt as part of an effort to electrify rural farmsteads.

By April 1941, DPPD had been merged with Buffalo County Public Power District. Marsha Banzhaf DPPD manager of customer service, said when she joined in the 1990s this was still a point of contention.

By the 1950s and 1960s DPPD were expanding their service and irrigation was becoming a major focus for DPPD.

Today DPPD serves all or parts of Dawson, Buffalo, Gosper, Lincoln, Custer, Frontier and Sherman Counties. They operate more than 23,000 electric meters and maintain 5,800 miles of power lines. This breaks down as 4,824 miles of overhead distribution line, 551 underground lines and 454 miles of transmission lines.

The peak demand for the system came on July 22, 2012 between the hours of 3 and 4 p.m. with 240,715 kilowatts. 173,767 kilowatts was the peak demand in 2018.

DPPD employs 82 people, 52 percent are lineman, this works out to 282 meters per lineman.

Nebraska Public Power District, NPPD, is the entity which generates the electricity for the state and the power is purchased by the 24 different districts in Nebraska. The majority of power produced by NPPD comes from nuclear power and coal plants. Wind, hydro, gas and other purchases make up the rest.

NPPD generates the power and moves it through their transmission lines throughout the state. At substations owned by DPPD the power is stepped down in voltage. It is then moved through the distribution grid and delivered to the meter at each customer’s location.

Kautz said they are proud to be owned by the public and not a part of investor owned utilities. She said the key difference is in public power districts, the customers are the key stakeholders while investors are key stakeholders and their assets are owned privately.

Public power districts are not for profit, Kautz said, it is the nature of public power to reinvest their money back into the district and not be held onto by private shareholders.

An 11 person board of directors help to guide DPPD and is split into three different subdivisions. The Lincoln subdivision is made up of Page Peterson, Rodger White and Bill Henry. The Dawson subdivision is represented by Paul Neil, Bob Kennicutt, Pat Hecox and Joe Jeffrey. Buffalo is overseen by Brad Brodine, Dave Dwiggins, Dan Muhlbach and Craig Wietjes.

The non-partisan board members are elected to six year terms, and customers vote for who they want to represent them. Eight of the members have completed National rural Electric Cooperative Association certification.

Perhaps the most important thing a customer of DPPD wants to know is the rate they pay. Kautz emphasized each rate covers the costs to serve customers in that same rate class, one class does not subsidize another.

The board of directors sets the rates after studies which balance DPPD needs against customer impact and ensure their results are reproducible and they use consistent methodology, Kautz said.

DPPD has a number of rates which include homes, farms, stock wells and irrigation wells.

One of the most important tasks DPPD performs, in the eyes of their customers, is to restore electricity after a power outage. During the tour, DPPD showed an example of how they locate and deal with power outages.

Brandon Wolf, a 17 year employee with DPPD, showed one example of when Orthman Manufacturing and surrounding customers complained of flickering lights and power equipment shutting off. The problem was isolated to a small stretch of wires and it was found out two balloons had landed on the power lines, melted together and were set on fire.

DPPD advises their customers to have their meter number at hand when they call in about outages, their computer system is made to search meter numbers and it provides the most effective location information when the power is out.

They also advise people to call in with any information about damaged lines, broken poles, fallen trees into the lines, etc. Wolf said the information from customers helps him to locate a problem quicker, come up with a solution and fix it faster so everything gets back to normal.

Communications Specialist Chelsa Gengenbach said people should call their outages in to the main office. She said people shouldn’t report it via Facebook and expect their outage to get fixed.

Another crucial function DPPD provides is a load management program. Manager of Engineering Cole Brodine said this voluntary program allows DPPD to interrupt irrigation service during peak usage times during the summer to help keep costs low for their customers.

This controlling of the electrical load helps save the same amount of electricity which would be needed to power Lincoln, Brodine said.

Irrigation customers can choose control options from no control at all, to a few days of control but to a full six day option. Those who choose to be controlled on more days pay less for their service thanks to vouchers DPPD provides.

Wells can be controlled up to 12 hours per day between the hours of 9 a.m. to 11 p.m. By shedding load, DPPD helps NPPD use energy resources wisely and eliminates the need to buy more power, or construct more power plants. Brodine said if there was no load management, there would be a further cost of $8.85 million.

The power saved on these control days is around 60 to 80 megawatts. To put this in perspective, Elwood is fully powered by two megawatts. “We usually turn off the equivalent of 30 Elwoods,” Brodine said.

DPPD started load management back in 1982 and today there are over 146,000 horsepower of irrigation wells enrolled in the program. Load control for 2019 began May 1 and will end on Sept. 15.

Crucial to the day to day operations of DPPD is mechanic workshop which keeps their fleet of utility trucks, pickups and other vehicles running. Fleet and Hydraulic mechanic Tony Hansen said he and two other mechanics help to keep everything running smoothly. Between them they are certified welders and hydraulic mechanics, the qualification is needed to work on the increasingly complex systems which make up today’s vehicles.

Looking to the future Kautz said “renewable energy is late coming to Nebraska, but it is coming and it will grow.”

Changes will have to be made to the grid as wind, solar, batteries and stored hydro become more prevalent and traditional sources like coal, nuclear and natural gas are slowly phased out.

“I predict the marriage of solar power to storable batteries will take over for the traditional energy sources,” said Kautz. She said 10 years ago she doubted the impact of renewable energy, today she has rethought that position.

Electric vehicles are also becoming more viable in parts of the United States, but out here in Nebraska, Kautz said people have “range anxiety,” citing this may prevent electric vehicles from fully becoming embraced in the state until improvements are made.

Kautz asked people to become advocates for public power and to speak to their representatives about the importance of a publicly owned power district, as opposed to private control.

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