Sun Prairie, Wisconsin
The Sun Prairie Utilities staff
A Part of the Community
It’s a cold winter day in Sun Prairie, Wis. A truck makes its way through the slush-lined streets and pulls into the garage at Sun Prairie Utilities (SPU). People are already inside waiting to accept the cargo, but instead of the usual transformers or wire, today it’s boxes of Thin Mints, Samoas and Do-Si-Dos.
“The Girl Scouts ask us to use our space for receiving and distributing their annual shipment of cookies,” says Utility Manager Rick Wicklund.
For the team at SPU, sharing their garage is just part of working at a locally owned, municipal utility.
“We all realize we’re here to provide value that goes above and beyond electric and water service,” says Wicklund. “We try to help out in any way we can.”
Sometimes, that means opening up the utility’s conference room to a local group that needs a meeting space; sometimes, it means reading to local schoolchildren or volunteering at Corn Fest.
“By participating, we become a part of the community instead of just a spectator,” says Dave Euclide, the utility’s customer service manager.
This community-centric attitude is the foundation of SPU’s culture.
Utility employees and Commissioners volunteer with organizations such as the Exchange Club, Lions Club, American Legion, Business and Education Partnership, Meals on Wheels and Sun Prairie Fire Department.
SPU employees strive to provide excellent customer service to their neighbors in the community. Sometimes, this simply means taking care of a person who needs help, even if they can’t solve his or her problem.
“You can’t always help everybody out,” says Wicklund, but he urges his staff to try to understand a customer’s situation.
“Maybe they’re going through a hard time. Maybe they lost their job or something’s happened to them. Maybe they’re worried about a relative who’s having a health issue and it’s coming out as frustration when they talk to us,” he says.
In short, SPU employees “do our best to show compassion and empathy.”
SPU hosted a photo scavenger hunt contest for customers as part of its 2017 Public Power Week
A Growing Community
As recently as 20 years ago, Sun Prairie was a small, agricultural community. Now, it’s one of the fastest growing cities in Dane County.
While the downtown still retains its small town charm, the city has seen significant residential and business growth, aided by the addition of the Shoppes at Prairie Lakes on the west side of the city.
Sun Prairie’s businesses, proximity to Madison, and excellent schools, public parks and city services have attracted many new residents to the area.
In order to support a growing community, SPU continues to implement initiatives to strengthen the utility’s infrastructure, technology, programs and services. These initiatives include:
Advanced Metering: The utility is about 40% of the way through a project to implement Advanced Metering Infrastructure
(AMI) throughout the city.
Advanced meters, which provide significantly more detailed data than previous technologies, will help customers track and manage their energy use.
Fiber Network: Sun Prairie is one of the first communities in Wisconsin to have a community-wide, high-speed, fiber optic Internet network.
SPU built and owned the first part of the network several years ago. The utility recently sold that original network to TDS, which expanded it through the rest of the city. TDS is now the Internet provider for many of Sun Prairie’s 29,300+ residents.
“Our agreement with TDS fulfills a mutual goal of getting fiber to homes throughout the city,” says Wicklund.
Energy Services: Like other WPPI Energy members, SPU provides an Energy Services Representative (ESR) to local businesses to help meet their renewable energy and energy efficiency goals.
“My role is to listen and understand a business’ goals, then provide the technical knowledge and resources to help reach those goals,” says Clint Cry, SPU’s ESR.
This includes connecting businesses with incentive programs to help fund projects. In 2017, Cry helped Royle Printing, ContiTech, Pick ’n Save, Pan-O-Gold Baking Company and several other businesses receive significant incentive funding for energy efficiency projects.
Cry also helped the City of Sun Prairie apply for a grant through a WPPI Energy program for renewable energy projects. The city was approved for over $64,600 in funding, and is planning to install a 74-kilowatt solar photovoltaic array at City Hall in the next year.
SPU employees are active with WPPI Energy, which is headquartered in Sun Prairie. SPU has representives in WPPI Energy’s Distribution Services Advisory Group, Member Services Advisory Group, Outage Management Task Force and Rates Services Advisory Group.
Wicklund and the SPU staff benefit from the sense of community they have with other members, as well as the range of services members have built through WPPI Energy.
“As locally owned, not-for-profit utilities, we all have the same issues. We can pick each other’s brains and learn from someone else’s experience,” says Euclide.
“There’s a sense of support between WPPI Energy members,” says Wicklund. “They’re your friends. You know them personally. They’re the ones you call when you need help.”
SPU also gets a lot of value from WPPI Energy services, including rate assistance, a robust power supply portfolio, advocacy, metering support, and network support.
WPPI Energy also hosts and maintains several software systems for SPU and other members.
“Hosting everything we have with WPPI in-house...I can’t even fathom it,” says Euclide. “We’d probably have to double our staff.”
Wicklund and his staff would like to see SPU continue to be progressive and forward-thinking. They’re currently working on a strategic plan for the utility, and would like to grow in the areas of AMI, work order management, distribution automation and customer interfacing.
They also want to make sure they’re anticipating things that might interest customers in the future, such as battery storage or customer- cited renewable energy.
“We want to be able to be a good resource for customers on those topics,” says Cry.
Sun Prairie Utilities is much like the city itself; it’s modern and sophisticated, but it’s also the kind of place where people are happy to lend a helping hand.
“While we try to be a utility of the future, we never want to lose our community focus,” says Wicklund. “The community is the reason for everything we do.”