Proud to Be Reliable
Originally published May 3, 2013
A dramatic historical mural enhances downtown Fairbury. Photos by Jeanne LaBella.
The clock on the wall in Mike Beachler’s office is one-of-a-kind. It keeps time accurately. The minute and hour hands wind around each day on a clock face that is a map of the city of Fairbury’s electric service territory. At the center of the “mapclock,” where the hour and minute hands are anchored, is a small bronze square that represents the Fairbury city limits.
Fewer than half of the city’s 3,231 electricity customers are within city limits. Fairbury provides wholesale power to a few small towns and has rural customers scattered along 190 miles of power lines. In some parts of the city’s electric territory, Fairbury’s lines run across the road from power lines owned by Norris Public Power District. Decisions on which utility serves new customers rest with the Nebraska Power Review Board, a state agency.
Beachler is superintendent of utilities for Fairbury. The city supplies electricity to a broad service area and supplies water and sewer services within city limits.
Fairbury is the seat of Jefferson County in southeastern Nebraska. The county’s population has declined 14 percent since 1990, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. The city was once home to Rock Island Railroad and Fairbury Junior College. Both were significant employers. The railroad left town and later, the college.
The city’s population was about 7,000 back in the 1960s, when Beachler was a schoolboy. Today, the city has only about 4,200 residents. But, challenges aside, Fairbury Light & Water has enjoyed modest growth over the last couple years. In 2010, the city served 3,144 customers, according to U.S. Energy Information Administration data. By 2011, it gained 87 customers, including two industrial customers.
Endicott Clay Products, a brick manufacturer south of Endicott, Neb., is the city’s largest industrial customer. Fairbury is also the wholesale electricity supplier to the village of Endicott, which serves 86 electricity customers. A large hog farm in Reynolds, Neb., is the city’s second largest industrial customer.
Other large users are the local hospital, a fertilizer company and Fairbury Foods, a unit of Omaha-based Westin Foods, which makes the bacon for Bacon Bits, a popular topping for salads, baked potatoes, green beans, and other foods. According to Beachler, the Omaha-headquartered company has “the Wal-Mart contract,” for Bacon Bits. That’s as good as it gets in manufacture of grocery items or other consumer goods.
The median public power utility in the United States serves 1,975 electricity customers. That puts Fairbury in the top half of U.S. public power utilities, as measured by number of customers served. Yet, Fairbury Light & Water is a small utility, with 40 employees, 30 in the electric operation. Fairbury earned gold-level recognition as a Reliable Public Power Provider this year. It was the second time the city applied for the American Public Power Association award.
Assistant Utilities Superintendent Larry Naiman prepared Fairbury’s RP3 application. On its first try, Fairbury did not make the grade for RP3 recognition. But the RP3 review panel provided comments on areas that needed attention, mostly related to record keeping, said Naiman. RP3 measures a utility’s operations in four areas—reliability, system improvement, work force and safety. On his second try for RP3 recognition, Naiman took the approach often used by a conscientious taxpayer. He reviewed the application and made separate files for each of the four scoring areas, then placed information in those files throughout the year.
This year, Fairbury cleared the hurdle and was one of 90 utilities recognized as a Reliable Public Power Provider at the APPA Engineering & Operations Technical Conference in Kissimmee, Fla., in March.
Naiman did not travel to Florida to pick up the award in person. However, he spoke that same week at the annual meeting of NMPP Energy in Lincoln, Neb., and shared his advice with other small utilities that want to achieve RP3 recognition. He broke the application process into five steps:
1. Review the application because it will take time to get information together.
2. Organize a file for each of four categories (reliability, system improvement, workforce development and safety).
3. Determine whether you have programs and policies in place and put appropriate information in each file so the information is readily available when you are ready to do your application.
4. Recognize that if you need to initiate new programs or policies, you need to do it in time to analyze your results.
5. Begin putting together the application.
Naiman showed his NMPP Energy colleagues his copy of Fairbury’s successful RP3 application. Asked why he was successful on his second try after failing to make the cut on his first RP3 application, Naiman said he was simply too rushed the first time around. APPA Senior Vice President of Engineering Services Michael Hyland spoke about the program at a meeting of NMPP Energy members a couple of years ago. Intrigued, Naiman immediately set about to complete an application for Fairbury. But there was not enough time between Hyland’s August visit and the Sept. 30 deadline for submitting the RP3 application.
In 2012 Corinne Pederson of NMPP Energy urged Naiman to apply again. “You’re so close, Larry, you ought to do it again,” she said.
The need for every utility to have a personnel succession plan is one of the elements of the workforce component of the RP3 application. In a small utility, that’s a very different approach than that of a large utility.
The RP3 application asks for information about workforce development planning and working with your employees to plan developments for them, Naiman said. “We can’t do those things. We’re not a utility with 150 people; we’re a utility of 30. We’re like brothers and sisters. We have more unity than a large staff. We have workforce development plans because we work so closely together. There are employees who have specific abilities and talents that are recognized and those people are trained alongside supervisors to take over those jobs. It’s not really documented.”
Once the utility applied for RP3 recognition, those informal plans were documented and thus, became formal. Beachler is confident that the next generation of managers for Fairbury Light & Water is in place now. As retirements occur, the utility is likely to undertake a statewide or national search for the next power plant superintendent, line superintendent, water superintendent, or utilities superintendent, but “we always like to think that someone will come up through the ranks,” he said.
In Fairbury, management of the city’s utilities is a Beachler family affair. Mike Beachler has worked for Fairbury utilities since 1975. His late father, Glen, worked for the city utilities for 38 years and was superintendent of utilities for many years. Mike Beachler has been superintendent since 1991.
Mike Beachler, right, regularly consults his office clock, left, which is built on a map of the Fairbury Light & Water electric system. Beachler followed in his father Glen’s career path as superintendent of utilities for Fairbury Light & Water.
Newcomers to Fairbury Light & Water often start their career as a meter reader. “We do not send our people to formal training—we do the in-house thing,” said Beachler. “If you’re hired, we start you as a meter reader. We are a little unique. We still have the meter reader who makes monthly contact with each and every one of those customers. That lets new hires get acquainted with the service area that we have and they become our troubleshooters—if they see an insulator or pole that’s not right, they write it down and let us know,” he said.
“From there, employees move into second class lineman; they help journey linemen, but do not get involved in hot work. We still do a lot of live work. Then, they work on secondary—the lower voltages—and then primary—the higher voltages. Then eventually step up to become a journeyman lineman. Right now, all nine of our guys are journeymen linemen,” Beachler said.
The city’s power plant, a 15.5-MW dual-fuel (gas or diesel) steam plant, sits idle most of the time, but it is staffed 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. The capacity is leased to the Municipal Energy Agency of Nebraska, NMPP Energy’s power supply unit. Fairbury is a full-requirements wholesale power customer of the agency. Power plant staff spend their days keeping the plant in good repair, so it is ready to go when called into service, usually on peak-demand summer days. Plant staff also perform other vital services for the city, including general electrical work, welding, even grounds maintenance.
Where raw reliability is concerned—keeping the lights on—Fairbury is vintage public power; it’s highly reliable. The worst outage in Mike Beachler’s memory occurred in 1975, when a surprise March ice storm caused widespread loss of power across the Fairbury system. That was 38 years ago. Beachler thinks the utility’s record for keeping power flowing to its customers speaks well for its system improvement plan. The utility has an ongoing parade of infrastructure improvements. It typically spends between $50,000 and $100,000 a year to upgrade electrical facilities. Projects are financed from utility reserves—not through debt.
“Of course, technology has improved, now they have the T-2 conductors and twisted wires. You don’t have the galloping that we used to have back in the old days,” Beachler said. “Most of the connectors now are not mechanical; they are squeeze-on, so your connection problems have solved themselves. The spans are shorter—we don’t have near the length of wire out there. We’ve helped ourselves by making those improvements.”
Continuous improvement is embedded in the small utility’s operations. Asked what he sees as Fairbury Light & Water’s greatest achievement, Beachler points to the system improvement program and the utility’s ability to keep that program in place without incurring debt and in the face of a shrinking population.
Maintaining that will become more challenging as the population shrinks and economic pressures grow. Environmental mandates imposed on the city will add to that pressure, Beachler said.
But Fairbury Light & Water’s track record is solid. It has been serving the city and surrounding rural areas for 103 years.
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