ElectriCities: Readying Communities for the Utility Solutions of Tomorrow

Close relationships with municipalities from the Atlantic Ocean to the Western North Carolina mountains put ElectriCities in a unique position to facilitate transformative new utility solutions. Local governments have long relied on the organization for customer service and safety training, legal services, economic development support and legislative advocacy. But as emerging technologies spark dramatic changes in energy production and conservation, ElectriCities’ role is taking on even greater importance.

"We’re a support arm for public power communities,” explains Brenda Daniels, manager of economic development at ElectriCities, a membership organization that assists municipalities in North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia. It serves a diverse list of the Research Triangle Region communities: Apex, Benson, Clayton, Lucama, Maccelesfield, Pinetops, Rocky Mount, Selma, Smithfield, Tarboro, Wake Forest and Wilson.

Through ElectriCities, towns and cities unite in delivering power on a quality and scale of a large, investor-owned utility but with a community touch. “We bring that local commitment,” says Daniels. Consolidating services also improves administrative efficiency, which yields significant savings that can be passed along to businesses and residents.

The structure of the organization’s relationships with its members also offers a ready proving ground for smart grid solutions. “We’ve done a lot of pilots with our members,” says Roy Jones, chief operations officer at ElectriCities. But there is more to its smart grid experimentation than electrical power: the fact that many of its member communities also provide natural gas and water service to their citizens has enabled the organization to lead across other resource areas. “We needed solutions that could accommodate all three,” Jones says.

In 2013, for example, ElectriCities began working with leaders in the Johnston County town of Benson on a smart grid pilot focusing on water and electric service. Town residents can now monitor their utilization via mobile device. They can also control their home thermostats and water heaters remotely from their smartphones or tablets. The Benson pilot was part of a strategic smart grid initiative launched a year before by ElectriCities and its members. About 20 representatives from member communities joined ElectriCities staff in evaluating proposed technologies. “We’re now moving into the implementation phase,” Jones says.

ElectriCities also provides management services to North Carolina’s two municipal power agencies: North Carolina Municipal Power Agency Number 1 and the North Carolina Eastern Municipal Power Agency. As such, the organization interfaces with the alternative energy marketplace in accordance with North Carolina’s Renewable Energy Portfolio Standards. The 2007 law, the first of its kind in the southeastern U.S., requires utilities in the state to phase up their renewable energy use to no less than 12.5 percent of total sales by 2021. The two power agencies are meeting those standards through solar, wind, hydroelectric and biomass, Jones says.

ElectriCities, a not-for-profit organization created in 1965, offers communities a platform for advocacy on legislative and regulatory issues that affect costs, safety and other mission-critical considerations. A primary focus is supporting economic development in member communities. In helping members attract and retain companies and industries, ElectriCities invests in job growth and the long-term fiscal health of its communities. “Our focus is on the growth of the community,” Daniels says. “Job creation and business investment are extremely important to us.”

The organization’s participation in the Research Triangle Cleantech Cluster also fits into ElectriCities’ economic development vision. “Recruiting and expanding businesses, and creating jobs that help our members grow, is at the core of everything we do,” says Jones, who serves as ElectriCities’ representative to the RTCC. He suspects there are opportunities in cleantech for all the organization’s member communities. His goal is maximizing them. “Clusters concentrate talent,” he says, and that talent can span R&D, technical, manufacturing and energy-related fields.

Joining RTCC also gives the organization insight into what other communities and companies are doing to deploy the latest utility and environmental solutions. “The ability to network with companies in the energy sector is invaluable,” Jones says. Chatham Park is a prime example. “We can take ideas we learn about through the partnership and bring them back to our members.” Jones and his colleagues can work one-on-one with other RTCC members or as a group in gauging the potential of new technologies.

Among the central factors ElectriCities considers when assessing emerging cleantech solutions is flexibility. “From an industry perspective we’re putting in place systems that can accommodate whatever the evolving technologies of the future might be,” Jones says. That places a premium on solutions that are ready for the transformation he sees on the horizon for utilities like his. “We’re on the cusp of major breakthroughs in the way we produce energy as well as the way we conserve it.”

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