A Public Power Island
By David L. Blaylock
Mike Kirkwood worked for investor-owned utilities, large- and medium-sized, before making the shift to a small-town public power utility. There’s no question which job and business model he prefers.
“I’d started my career with a for-profit in New Bedford Gas and Electric,” he said. “It was for-profit but run in a way that was very close to the community and paid attention to the small town that it served. But before long it was part of Commonwealth Electric, then NSTAR, then Northeast Utilities. Something was lost over time.”
“I liked the companies I worked for, got a lot of experience and saw the many different ways companies, both utilities and otherwise, are run,” Kirkwood said. “But the public power business model is what I love about working in electricity, the focus on customers, the way you can connect with the community you are providing a service to.”
Two and a half years ago, Kirkwood made the move from IOUs and large energy resource companies to become general manager of the Pascoag Utility District in Rhode Island. “I wanted to end my career the way it started: serving a community,” he said.
Pascoag is the state’s sole public power utility, created by the Public Utility Commission in 2001. While the rest of the state was folded into National Grid service territory, Pascoag remained public power since its electric power was served through the fire district. A special charter by the state general assembly convened to create the new utility district, which serves both water and electricity to the villages of Pascoag and Harrisville (electric only) in the municipality of Burrillville.
“We’re really lucky that our utility was able to remain public power,” Kirkwood said. “For us, it means we get to work in a rich environment where we have opportunities to work on the many aspects of a utility at the small scale and get involved in every part of that business; for our customers they get a service provider who is focused on them and improving the community.”
As the utility begins making the necessary technological advancements to improve its system, Kirkwood has found the public power business model and the opportunities of small-town life to pay dividends for the utility and the customers.
“We’ve been able to really get involved in these improvements because everyone on staff gets excited about how we are going to make their jobs better and how the customer side will be improved,” he said. “That’s seen in the way we are looking at billing and our website, in the way we are checking out and rolling out new technologies, and in our focus when something goes wrong.”
“Not too long ago we were looking at one of our trailers that was still using the look we’d had from being part of the fire district and how we needed to update it,” he said. “As luck would have it, my assistant general manager did a favor for the company we were using to clean up and restore our water tanks, which they repaid him by sandblasting the trailer and repainting it for us. He wanted to help us out and we didn’t have to go through a long process involving purchasing orders and a chain of command like we’d have been required to do elsewhere.”
But nowhere is the customer focus better seen than during storms, especially in a region that has been hit by hurricanes and major winter storms in recent years.
When Hurricane Irene took out much of the electric grid in New England in August 2011, Pascoag Utilities customers got a clear look at what their provider’s focus can do for them. As much of National Grid was working to restore power to the area, the crews in Pascoag were combing through their system to make their repairs. The district was back to 95 percent service within two and a half days while their neighbors across town in the National Grid territory were out for as much as two weeks.
“In some ways we were lucky that we lost both our feeds in from National Grid, meaning we could close all the breakers to keep our lines from getting reenergized and crawl through our system for those two and a half days before they were able to start feeding electricity back to us,” he said. “And I should give them credit in that they worked hard to get us back up and running from their side, not moving us to the bottom of the list.”
“Then, after making sure that everything was working in our district, we sent crews over to the National Grid side to help restore their power.”
This stark difference in reliability and system restoration is quite clear to customers, both those in Pascoag and those outside it.
“We get comments on Facebook and other communications all the time from people thanking us for being their utility and, probably more noticeably, we also get some from people in other parts of town asking that we please start serving them,” Kirkwood said.
“It makes me and the rest of the team so proud to know that we are making our customers lives, at least in how they are able to use our service, better,” he said. “Everyone except for me is from here and that comes through when you see how intent my staff is in making sure their friends and neighbors are getting the best service. When we’re in storm recovery mode, a big part of my job is just making people go home and get some rest after tough all-day work on the system because they’d otherwise keep working until they collapsed.”
Even when the weather is calm, the team at Pascoag is focused on ways to improve the utility and, by extension, its customer owners, Kirkwood said. “You never hear ‘that’s not my job’ here because everyone realized that, regardless of title, making our the utility district better for the customer is all of our main jobs.” With that, Kirkwood can rundown a list of the many ways the line crew has jumped in to help out, including digging holes and repairing water mains, read meters, and landscaping to stop soil erosion.
“Technically, I have 18 people on my electric staff and one water superintendent. In reality I have 19 people working on anything and everything for both the water and electric sides,” Kirkwood said. “When we needed to install our water SCADA system, we got the plans from the contractor and did many of the installation jobs ourselves rather than getting subcontractors.”
Having the electric crew do those jobs cut the SCADA system cost in half, he said. “That money saved alone is value returned to community in reasonable rates.”
“But you get that in a small community,” he said. “My office staff knows the customers because they see them regularly; my crew can get out to a problem spot and know exactly what’s going on because they’ve memorized the smaller system. We make the tasks more manageable because we are so intensely focused on the customers who ultimately gain from them.”
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