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Paul Fitterer: Empowering members to make informed energy decisions

Change is ahead for your electric cooperative. Paul Fitterer, the new general manager of Capital Electric Cooperative, explains some of the prominent challenges, and why it’s important for our member-owners to stay informed. On April 1, Fitterer took over as general manager, following the retirement of Lars Nygren, who served as general manager for 32 years. Prior to being hired by Capital Electric as business manager in 2004, Fitterer worked at National Information Solutions Cooperative in Mandan, giving him 20 years of cooperative education and experience.

He’s stepping into some big challenges immediately. In last month’s North Dakota Living local pages, Paul Sukut, general manager of Basin Electric Power Cooperative, told Capital Electric’s Member Advisory Committee members that he couldn’t think of anything that would have a more dire effect on North Dakota than the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan. One week later, the U.S. Supreme Court granted a “stay” of the plan, which proposes to reduce carbon emissions in North Dakota by a staggering 45 percent. While the stay means the Clean Power Plan currently has no legal effect while the courts are reviewing the rule for its lawfulness, Fitterer says public perception dictates that we’re moving toward a carbon-constrained world.

“We will see pressure on our wholesale power rates, especially if the Clean Power Plan would go into effect as is,” he says. “It would require Capital Electric to purchase power from less carbon-intensive areas like wind, solar and gas. You can implement all the solar and wind you want, but at nighttime when the wind isn’t blowing and you don’t have solar, you have to have something else to cover it. That has to be a gas, and it costs money to build those plants,” he says.

Fitterer noted that consumers would be paying to bring new generation online, while at the same time paying the debt on existing coal-fired power plants that would have to be shuttered before they reach their remaining useful life. Capital Electric purchases power from Central Power Electric Cooperative. Today, the cost to purchase power is roughly 70 percent of Capital Electric’s operating costs — and growing.

“That’s only 30 percent of our operating costs that we have direct control over,” Fitterer says. “To give Lars credit, we have one of the lowest-controllable operating costs per-member in the country. There’s not a lot of room to save money there, so we need to be diligent in working with our power providers to minimize the impacts of changes.”

Another big challenge for cooperatives across the country is there aren’t a lot of people who remember the novelty of when the lights came on.

“The people who went through it remember. They still come to our annual meetings. They get it and are involved,” Fitterer says. “Most people nowadays who are members weren’t alive during that time. They’ve had safe, affordable and reliable energy their whole life. It’s a commodity,” he says.

As the electric industry continues to change, so do the needs of the cooperative’s membership. Fitterer says it’s important to him to learn what the co-op’s member-owners want in terms of service, rates and carbon footprint.

“It’s important that co-ops embrace what their members want. To get feedback from them and find out what that is, and set up our rates to promote that variable, we will be incentivized as a co-op to help our members save energy,” he says.

The cooperative plans to reach out and receive feedback from millennials. “They are on their cell phones; they aren’t at our meetings. I want to know what a 30-year-old wants as much as I want to know what a 60-year-old wants,” Fitterer says. “It’s important that we connect with our members, build relationships and get them involved. Empowering our members to make informed energy decisions is really going to be the key.”

Staying vigilant in the legislative process on the state and federal level, and utilizing the strength of the electric cooperative network, is another challenge for Capital Electric and its members, as more issues like the Clean Power Plan continue to arise.

“It’s important to use our grassroots capabilities,” Fitterer says. “Electric cooperatives serve 42 million people across the country. That’s why we are powerful on a national level, and it’s similar statewide. Together, we have a powerful voice.”

Another challenge on the horizon is distributed generation. As the cost of electric service is being driven up by issues like the Clean Power Plan, technology is advancing in the forms of solar and wind. As the cost of station power increases and the cost/benefit of alternative energy improves, members may be adding solar and wind capabilities to their homes; especially once battery storage improves and becomes affordable.

“That will be another challenge for us to find out what our members want and how they want us to help them,” Fitterer says.

While issues like the Clean Power Plan may leave our members feeling uncertain as to what the future holds for their electric bills, they can take comfort in knowing Capital Electric is closely monitoring issues on a state and federal level, and will do its best to keep providing safe, affordable and reliable electric service. And as Paul Fitterer becomes comfortable in his new role as general manager, he looks forward to visiting with our members and receiving their feedback — and ultimately working together in cooperative style to move Capital Electric forward.

 

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