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Utility leadership consider utility trends, look to RFMU's future

River Falls Municipal Utility Director Kevin Westhuis, and utility advisory board member / City Council Member Diane Odeen shared some thoughts on utility trends and the future of River Falls Municipal Utilities. Shown is the River Falls Power Plant on Winter Street. Photos courtesy Mary Zimmermann, River Falls City Communications Manager.

River Falls City Council Member Diane Odeen has been on the city's Utility Advisory Board since she was first elected to the council in 2013. Earlier this summer, Odeen represented River Falls Municipal Utilities and WPPI Energy (of which RFMU is a member-utility) at the American Public Power Association (APPA) National Conference in New Orleans.

"I learned that public power is a big deal," Odeen said. "RFMU is not huge - we have around 6,700 customers—but it is part of a national organization that represents 2,000 public utilities serving 49 million people."

Odeen enjoyed learning about communities and utilities of the 1,700 people at the conference, from all over the country.

Odeen said topics included:

• Cyber security, which Odeen said, is of increasing importance as utilities and utility customers use online platforms more often, keeping track of electrical usage, paying bills and making adjustments to settings of their appliances via computer or smartphone.

"This requires that local utilities be aware of best practice to protect their customers' information," Odeen said. "This can be a challenge for small utilities, and member organizations such as WPPI can help introduce technology that might otherwise be out of reach."

• Mega trends: Odeen said the keynote speaker, Chunka Mui, spoke about the importance of recognizing mega-trends and how they might affect what people need.

"One example of failing to recognize a megatrend is the Kodak company," Odeen said, "which was unable to make the shift from film to digital photography."

Mui also spoke about the increase of services like Uber and Lyft, and said driverless cars are in the future.

"Here in River Falls, I don't think we'll have driverless cars any time soon," Odeen said, "But it did make me think of our area's transportation needs and how the utility might be affected."

Odeen said available, reliable public transportation is needed in the area, between Hudson, New Richmond and River Falls.

"It's possible that the utilities could help with alternative-fueled vehicles, similar to the electric / natural gas buses seen in big cities," Odeen said. "This isn't just an issue that affects the utility, of course, but a utility might be part of a solution."

• Fiber optic: "One breakout session that was very interesting was about how Fort Collins, Colorado, had responded to the needs of the community and built a fiber optic broadband network," Odeen said. "It makes a lot of sense for utilities to provide internet services to their customers."

She said being connected to the internet is becoming as necessary as electricity to businesses. Fort Collins passed a city-wide referendum to allow the creation of the fiber optic network. She said Fort Collins faced some heavy opposition from the cable lobby, but was ultimately successful.

"There are a lot of hurdles to go through, but I think having a city-owned broadband network in River Falls would be a great addition to RFMU"

Utility Director Kevin Westhuis said that while RFMU installs a lot of fiber optic for the utility and for the city, the utility hasn't gone "into the fiber optic business."

Westhuis said it's a little uncertain how people are going to be communicating in the future. One of the biggest trends he's seen in the utility business is a change in the way bills are looked at.

"For a little over 100 years, paying your utility bill has been a very reactionary process," he said. "You use your electricity, you get your bill and pay your bill."

Westhuis said some utilities are looking at going to a pay model where people pay for a certain amount of electricity, or water, and then when they have gone through that, they will purchase more.

Westhuis compared this model to paying for a tank of gas. Drivers purchase a tank of gas for their car, use the gas, and when the tank gets low, purchase more gas to refill the tank.

Westhuis said RFMU is not looking to switch to that model at this point, but it is a trend happening at many other utilities.

In combination with what is called advanced metering, Westhuis said, this could help customers save money. Advanced metering uses more sophisticated utility meters which collect data about every 15 minutes.

With advanced metering, Westhuis said, customers could, for example, decide they want to spend $50 per month on electricity. The advanced metering technology could alert customers when they've used $40 worth of electricity, to help them manage their own electric usage.

Westhuis said River Falls is looking at going to advanced metering, probably starting in 2019.

In addition to the above, Westhuis said, advanced metering could also help RFMU more easily identify power outages.

"At some point customers won't even need to call in for outages anymore," he said. "Our utility will be notified who's out and when they're out and the exact location."

Westhuis said that would speed utility response times, and also allow customers to go online and look at maps to see what areas might be out of power at a given time.

Westhuis said he thinks a rise in electric vehicle use might drive a change in rate structures. He says utility users around the country might see lower rates during off-peak hours, such as overnight.

"I do believe the electric utility industry has really been fairly slow to change," Westhuis said, "And I think now... we're changing because our customers are demanding it."

Gretta Stark

Gretta Stark has been a reporter for the River Falls Journal since July of 2013. She previously worked as a reporter for the New Richmond News from June 2012 to July 2013. She holds a BA in Print and Electronic Media from Wartburg College.

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