New London, Wisconsin
|Trains with names such as The Flambeau, The Twin Cities Express, and The Fox River Express took travelers to cities such as Chicago, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, and Ashland from New London's depot, built in 1923.
One of the advantages of being a locally owned utility is the ability to become closely acquainted with customers.
For New London Utilities (NLU), that has meant hosting a breakfast meeting in December for the utility’s 30 large power customers, followed by a personal visit by General Manager Steve Thompson and Energy Services Representative Lisa Miotke to each business in the first quarter of 2013.
Among them are the area's largest employers. The nationally recognized Hillshire Brands started here in the 1950s, and today the facility on County Road D continues to produce its famous sausage. That same decade, two packaging pioneers started another international business that still thrives. Today Curwood is part of Bemis Corp. and makes plastic packing film. A separate division, Perfecseal, manufactures packing for medical products. Granite Valley Forest Products maintains a large lumber yard in town after purchasing the local Wolf River Lumber Co.
“Our growth has been slow but steady,” Thompson said.
Expanding Highway 15 to four lanes all the way into New London – which is planned within the next decade – could bring more economic development to the area. In the meantime, the city’s 7,300 residents already enjoy amenities such as a library, museum, community pool, the 120-acre Hatten Park, wildlife centers and fishing.
Thompson is in his 28th year of managing the city’s electric and water utilities, which employ 21 people. Previously, he worked for local utilities in the village of Hustisford, Wis., and the city of Elroy, Wis.
|During Heritage Days in New London, visitors can walk through a pre-1840s buckskinners' encampment to see firsthand the way pioneers and fur trappers lived.
As Thompson and Miotke meet with commercial customers, they offer to come back and complete a comprehensive facility study. The study can then identify ways that the business can save money; prioritize potential projects; and determine whether dollars are available through the utility, WPPI Energy and Focus on Energy.
“They’re all quite interested in efficiency, but they have to still get the capital dollars to get it done. Everybody’s a little hesitant about where are we in this recovery and capital dollars are still hard to come by,” Thompson said.
Many businesses made significant energy efficiency improvements in the late 1990s, when the utility pioneered an approach called the New London Resource Project.
The money the utility spent during the three-year initiative was injected back into the local economy as businesses saved money on their electric bills.
“We tried to push energy conservation and change how it was done,” Thompson explained. “We provided low-interest loans that were paid back on the utility bill. If you identify the project, provide the funds, and they pay you back with the money they save, it’s amazing how much easier it is to get things done.”
NLU still offers this kind of financing through the Shared Savings program, which can also be combined with other rebates and incentives.
“We’ve been able to provide value-added service to our business customers. When they need something, we strive to be very responsive and helpful,” Thompson said.Like other public power utility managers, Thompson stays engaged in economic development. “Whenever the city administrator gets into any type of project, I’m always one of his first calls,” he said.
|Many historic buildings still stand in New London, including the Grand Opera House Theatre.
Residential customers can take advantage of several programs as well. In honor of Public Power Week last October, NLU hosted its first electronics recycling event. Customers could bring in old computers, TVs and more at no cost. In just one Saturday morning, the utility collected more than 53,000 pounds of electronics that did not end up in the landfill.
The response to the event was so positive that it will be repeated again this summer, Thompson said.
The utility provided another public service recently by responding to a request for funding from the police department. The contribution allowed each school to purchase an emergency police radio in response to the tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut.
Throughout his tenure, Thompson has overseen significant infrastructure improvements, which included rebuilding both the electric and water systems.
Adapting to Change
NLU’s long history of involvement in the industry dates back to founding WPPI Energy in 1980.
“The last 20 years in particular have brought lots of change,” Thompson said. “I think we’re going to continue to see that. WPPI has helped us to fight through some very difficult years.”
Joint action has evolved throughout the years to not only give locally owned utilities ownership of power supply resources, but also access to a successful joint purchasing initiative, programs for business and residential customers, legislative advocacy, and shared knowledge. The Metering and Billing Best Practices Task Force, which Thompson chaired, is a recent example.
“The utility business has been very good to me and WPPI has been a big part of my career,” Thompson said. “We are so much better and stronger together than we are as individual units.”
This Member Spotlight originally appeared in the Spring 2013 Power Report newsletter.