Eagle River, Wisconsin
The sun sets over the Highway 45 North bridge, which crosses the Eagle River.
It’s been more than a century since Eagle River’s locally owned utility began generating electricity and pumping water, catering to residents as well as guests at the resorts built along the area’s pristine chain of lakes.
Over the decades Eagle River has prospered as a Northwoods destination – and not only during Wisconsin’s short-lived summers.
Once the snow flies, the snowmobiles arrive. In early January, 30,000 spectators and 1,400 competitors will fill the Eagle River World Championship Derby venue, earning the city the reputation as Snowmobile Capital of the World®.
By February, Eagle River will be better known as Hockey Capital of Wisconsin, when 2,500 players and many more fans come to town for the Labatt Blue USA Adult Pond Hockey Championships. The 2015 competition will be the 10th annual, held on Dollar Lake.
That means business in the community of 1,398 residents with a footprint of two square miles. It’s good for public power, too: Eagle River Light & Water has grown steadily, with plenty of projects to keep the utility’s staff busy year-round.
Maintaining Local Control
In the early 1980s, Wisconsin Public Service (WPS) – which still has service territory surrounding Eagle River – asked the city to consider selling the electric utility, its second attempt after an offer in 1952. A citywide referendum showed that residents were 4-1 against selling, according to a history of the utility written by then-manager Lee McFaul. The city turned down the offer, and in 1985, the council appointed individuals to serve on a newly formed utility commission.
Utility Manager Pat Weber was a lineman at the utility during this time, hired by McFaul in 1982. Born and raised in Eagle River, Weber had worked in the community for several years as an electrician. He and fellow linemen worked on many projects in the 1980s and ’90s, including the Highway 45 expansion, the Highway 45/Highway 70 bypass, the airport expansion to accommodate private hangars, and the addition of new businesses and homes.
The 2000s brought changes in leadership, as manager Larry Phifer retired and the city evaluated whether to combine the utility manager and city administrator positions. From 2003 to 2008, Lon Bushey served as city administrator and utility manager. In 2008, Eagle River hired Joe Laux as city administrator and zoning administrator, and in 2009, Weber was appointed manager of the utility. Throughout the decade, the electric crew worked on the new high school, business park, transmission line and substation, as well as updating aging infrastructure.
Most recently, utility staff and contractors completed a rebuild of Silver Lake Road, one of the arteries into the city.
In addition to the advantages of local service and decision-making, Eagle River residents benefit from the utility’s contribution to the municipal budget, Weber said. The average annual contribution is $150,000 in payments in lieu of tax (PILOT) and excess earnings.
The staff of Eagle River Light & Water Utility includes (back, from left) John Amorose, water/wastewater specialist; Pat Weber, utility manager; Cindy Franz, utility clerk; John Laszczkowski, office manager; Jeff Forbes, energy services representative; (front, from left) Mike Sanborn, foreman; Zach Otto, lineman; and Jeremy Peterson, lineman. Not pictured are Curt Hennes, lineman; and Daryl Rutkowski, water/wastewater supervisor.
The utility’s eight-person staff – including office manager John Laszczkowski and utility clerk Cindy Franz – are based in an office in the former high school building.
Residential meters are still read by going door to door, a task which takes five people less than a day to complete in good weather. “It’s just one of those nice things about a small community: you get to walk around and talk to the people,” Weber said.
During Public Power Week, Eagle River Light & Water invited customers to stop by the office for a free LED night light. Throughout the year, residential customers have access to Focus on Energy incentives and rebates, and the utility provides assistance to those who qualify during the winter.
Energy Services Representative Jeff Forbes provides one-on-one assistance to business customers. The schools, the Vilas County Justice Center, grocery stores Trig’s and Pick ’N Save, and recycling firm Eagle Waste are among the utility’s biggest customers.
Many locally owned shops and restaurants have benefited from Focus on Energy and utility incentives to upgrade lighting fixtures.
“Some of them spent less than $500 to get 30- or 40-year-old light fixtures replaced,” Weber said.
Others have replaced outdated equipment with energy-efficient upgrades. In 2013, the utility helped customers save 761 megawatt-hours of electricity, for a savings of more than $69,000.
A local heating and cooling contractor, Rogers Control, is installing a 5-kilowatt solar photovoltaic system that will produce about 35% of their annual energy needs.
Eagle River has been a member of WPPI Energy since 1982 and remains actively involved. Weber has served on the Distribution Services Advisory Group for more than 10 years. He said he appreciates the convenience of the joint purchasing catalog, and now, the addition of the Request for Quotes (RFQ) module.
Weber’s interest in policy led to his participation on the Policy and Communications Leadership Council over the past two years. Both he and Mayor Jeff Hyslop have attended the American Public Power Association Legislative Rally in Washington, D.C.
“I wanted to take a more active role in something that can benefit the city and the utility, and to be more aware of what’s happening with legislation and regulatory policy,” Weber said.
Weber said he appreciates insights from WPPI Energy and the Municipal Electric Utilities of Wisconsin (MEUW) to help him keep an eye on energy policies that will impact communities and what customers will want and expect, such as the ability to generate their own solar electricity and access more detailed usage data.
“Today’s customers want to know a lot more about their electric usage and what options they have in saving energy and trimming their utility costs,” he said.