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GM: Willmar, Minn., utility upgrades are exactly that

In this undated photo, workers with Willmar Municipal Utilities replace a utility pole on Kandiyohi County Road 41, also known as Radio Station Road. The old pole was damaged by woodpeckers. A recent Associated Press analysis has found that utility customers across the U.S. are getting diminishing returns on their investment. Tribune photo by Gary Miller

WILLMAR — Willmar Municipal Utilities, along with other municipals, electric cooperatives and public power districts, are owned by those they serve and answer to Main Street and not Wall Street.

So when there is something  a customer or owners want and are willing to pay for, it happens, says Wesley Hompe, general manager at Willmar Utilities.

He says the long-term investment is in the communities the utility serves, not stockholders, hedge funds, or the next quarterly profit statement.

For example, Willmar Utilities has a program to convert the electric distribution system in the neighborhoods from overhead to underground to reduce exposure to trees and animals such as squirrels that can cause power outages.

Hompe says the underground conversion program has led to vast improvements in the reliability of Willmar’s electric distribution system.

Hompe said he does not recall seeing an example of replacing an old, fully-depreciated piece of equipment with another old piece of technology, as is mentioned in a recent AP story.

“Willmar Municipal Utilities is always looking for and obtaining the newest and most cost-effective technologies to replace and upgrade retired equipment,’’ he says. “For us, replacement equals upgrade. We normally purchase ‘utility grade’ equipment, which is designed to run unattended for 30 years or more. It is not cheap, but the quality is built to last. You could say you get what you pay for.’’

Willmar Utilities’ annual budget includes the same percentage of system reinvestment as the utility has done for quite some time.

“We are constantly looking at advances in the industry for new methods and materials that will make the delivery of power more efficient and cost-effective,’’ he said. “We are in the third year of investigating LED street lights. This new technology can cut lighting energy costs by 50 percent. During the investigation process, however, we discovered that this technology is not quite ready for full deployment. When the technology matures, we will be ready.’’

Hompe also says the utility is investigating smart metering technologies and how they can help achieve better reliability, more cost-effectiveness, and better customer service. He says smart equipment such as switches and voltage controllers in the distribution system added to smart metering will make the system even more efficient one day.

“Like LED street lights, this technology is also under rapid development and not quite ready for full investment,’’ said Hompe. “Because of the tremendous investment required to purchase, install, and integrate a smart system, we are carefully evaluating the benefits and fantastic claims before spending our customer/owners’ money.’’

Hompe said Willmar depends on the transmission system and participates in regional organizations such as the Midwest Reliability Organization and invests in grid upgrades such as the CapX2020 project.

“We are part of these transmission efforts to increase reliability of the grid that serves Willmar and the region,’’ he says.

David Little
David Little covers the Willmar City Council, Willmar Municipal Utilities and other city news.
(320) 235-1150