Last week, we began a series of workshops and listening sessions to get input and recommendations from Western Area Power Administration (WAPA) customers and all stakeholders about how the Energy Department’s Power Marketing Administrations (PMAs) can work to modernize the electric grid. As costs to maintain WAPA’s aging transmission lines and power transformers steadily increase and new stresses, and threats to the grid are emerging, the Department and WAPA are traveling throughout WAPA’s service territory to get feedback from customers and stakeholders that will help us draft a set of recommendations on how to move forward and tackle these issues. There are challenges facing the grid, and we want to engage in a thoughtful, forward-looking conversation with customers and other stakeholders as to how to plan for those challenges. 

To that end, we recently began a series of listening sessions starting July 17 and 18 in Rapid City, S.D., and Billings, Mont., in the Upper Great Plains (UGP) region in WAPA’s service territory. We had a chance to hear from more than 100 stakeholders, including WAPA’s customers, local residents and organizations, who provided invaluable input to the effort. We learned that the workshops and listening sessions are essential to surfacing regional issues, understanding how best to collaborate with stakeholders, pointing to the items that need further clarification, and pushing for better definition of this effort.

In our South Dakota and Montana sessions, we heard loudly and clearly that there are significant concerns about the impact of potential initiatives on transmission and electric service rates. To be clear, we understand our responsibility to provide affordable electricity to the families and businesses that consume electricity generated by WAPA. It is not our goal to raise rates, and as we look at potential options, we understand the need to proceed prudently while simultaneously looking for ways to increase efficiency and keep rates low. 

We also learned things that were new to us -- and things we might not have learned had we not traveled to UGP to engage in this conversation. For example, we heard concerns about how new Federal policies are preventing the use of large water heaters to be used for energy storage. In these rural areas, water heaters can be used to help the flexibility and resiliency of the grid similar to what electric vehicle batteries may do in urban areas. We also heard resoundingly that customers want those who would benefit from upgrades to the grid to pay for those upgrades. 

For us to make smart, thoughtful, and well-informed decisions about how to address the challenges facing the grid, it’s critical that we hear from a variety of stakeholders, customers, and ratepayers. Over the coming weeks, we’ll be hosting more workshops and listening sessions. We’ll travel to Arizona, California, Colorado, and eastern South Dakota to hear from local residents about how we can work to upgrade the electric grid and improve services. And if you can’t attend one of the regional workshops, we encourage you to send ideas and comments to Getting public input is a first step in this process, but it’s arguably the most important.

We want to thank the customers and stakeholders who travelled to the listening sessions to provide valuable feedback to this process. We recognize the long distances that many travelled to attend and appreciate the thoughtful comments provided by all. To be sure, there are issues facing the grid that will require our attention. The best way to resolve those issues is to work together to identify needs, potential solutions, and ways to better collaborate. As we continue our work in transitioning to a modern, secure, and reliable grid, we look forward to collaborating with you and hearing your ideas.