Northern Wasco County PUD and Klickitat PUD look at the same water from different directions. While Klickitat PUD provides power in Washington, and Northern Wasco does the same in Oregon, the two utilities’ service territories meet along the banks of the Columbia River.
For most companies, jostling up against the territory of another business providing the exact same product means competition. For public power providers, it means opportunity.
“There are benefits to partnering with other similar organizations that aren’t profit driven,” says Roger Kline, Northern Wasco County PUD general manager. “That we’re all just trying to do the best thing for our customer owners, that’s a good joining of the energy.”
Public power providers have outlined service territories, and largely do not compete for customers. Instead, it is often in their best interests to cooperate. Costs of the facilities that generate electricity and the miles of line that deliver it—the fixed infrastructure costs—are far greater than the cost of producing additional energy to serve more customers. Rather than creating huge costs by building competing dams or having neighboring lanes of power lines going to the same places, power can be provided at lower costs when utilities work together.
Cooperation Among Cooperatives is one of the Seven Cooperative Principles guiding electric cooperatives. Whether PUDs, municipals or cooperatives, working together can benefit all members. Examples include the member utilities of Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems that are partnering to generate electricity from a small modular nuclear reactor, and the Association of Louisiana Electric Cooperatives donating to the Nebraska Farm Bureau Association in 2019 after a bomb cyclone damaged crops.
In the 1990s, Northern Wasco looked to build the McNary Fishway Hydro Project, which would put a 10-megawatt generator in one of the fish ladders at McNary Dam. Building the plant would cost nearly $30 million, which could burden a single rural power provider with debt. But joining forces with a friendly neighbor spread the expense and benefits.
“Northern Wasco turned to their neighbor to the north, Klickitat, and said, ‘You’re also a growing utility that has the same value system that we do,’ ” Roger says. “Klickitat came in and brought funds to the table, and we essentially split the project.”
Both utilities now draw power from the fishway as 50% owners. The two cooperate on other projects, too. Northern Wasco and Klickitat PUD host joint wildfire prevention trainings, even inviting other surrounding utilities and splitting costs. The utilities share specialized equipment, because it would be inefficient for each utility to invest in their own.
“It would be cost prohibitive to do some of these things on our own,” Roger says. “I may have a specific piece of rolling stock or tool, like a wire trailer, or a longer bucket truck. Well, it wouldn’t behoove each organization to have one of those. If the neighbor has one, you can borrow it.”
Cooperatives around the country partner to benefit their members. Organizations such as the Northwest Public Power Association formalize these partnerships to help all members. NWPPA focuses its efforts on training and education, communication, and public policy and government relations. Just like a co-op can help members who would have a tough time generating their own power, trade associations such as NWPPA combine the strength of its members for the benefit of all.
“They’re all behind the same mission of providing safe, reliable, at-cost power,” says Scott Corwin, NWPPA executive director. “I think to the extent we can help get people together, help them network together to share best practices, help them stay on the same page to fulfill that mission, that’s a good role we can play.”
Associations such as NWPPA can also elevate the voices of its members to great effect. This year, NWPPA helped connect utilities and legislators to ensure rural electric cooperatives qualified for Paycheck Protection Programs loans as part of America’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.
The Alaska Power Association provides many of the same functions to its region. Executive Director Crystal Enkvist says APA member utilities are eager to cooperate with each other.
“It’s been disappointing not being able to have our annual meeting this year, because so many of our members have likened the APA annual meeting to a family reunion,” Crystal says.
Much like relatives swap stories and share updates on life events at family reunions, APA members treat meetings as the chance to listen to each other and get up to speed. Now many meetings happen electronically, with ideas shared over videoconferences.
“When you’re at a small rural utility, you can feel like you’re in a vacuum sometimes,” Crystal says. “When you’re there on the phone with a CEO of a large utility in Anchorage, and the CEO of a utility on Kodiak Island, you realize that you’re not alone, and you can all share each other’s experiences.”
Along the Columbia River, utilities are quick to collaborate. Roger says that a few years ago, in the midst of a rough fire season, Northern Wasco County PUD spent more time rebuilding neighboring utilities’ equipment than its own. In a time of need, public power providers turn to cooperation and helping others.
“We know that eventually it might be us who needs the help,” Roger says. “Pay it forward, or do a good turn daily, however you look at it.”
Celebrating National Cooperative Month and Public Power Week
- By understanding what makes your member- or community-owned utility special, you can better benefit from its offerings.
- There are 834 distribution electric co-ops and 2,006 publicly owned utilities nationwide.
- PUDs have an average of 48 customers per mile of line, while co-ops average 7.4 customers per mile.
- Co-ops and public power providers provide power to a combined 91 million customers, with public power serving 49 million, and co-ops serving 42 million.