Brandon Warnke, a UCEC journeyman line worker, mentoring Tayden Wells a summer intern.
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Reliability? The Silver Bullet is Skilled Workers

May 21, 2024
Union County Electric Cooperative has been making improvements to help their customers, and a big key has been making sure their workers are as skilled as possible when they enter their team.

An unprecedented 52.4% of Union County Electric Cooperative's entire system is underground. Recently we have converted another 19 miles of overhead to underground and added an additional 12 miles of new distribution underground. For a small Rural Electric Cooperative, this is great progress. The upgrades have greatly improved reliability and reduced the number of outages. Over the next several years, they will increase the number of underground miles as we slowly, but steadily replace an aging overhead system. Undergrounding these lines has also reduced the risk of public contacts from storms and farm equipment. The goal has been to improve reliability and mitigate hazards as much as possible.

UCEC has also upgraded its metering system to an AMI system. Previously, line workers were reading meters for 3-4 days a month or the customers had to read their own meter and submit the reading monthly. Metering is now automated, freeing up the Linecrew to do what they were trained for and making our operation more efficient.

The South Dakota Co-op has also started an in-house wiring department with a full-service certified electrician, an important service for members and non-members. That was greatly needed due to the shortage of electricians coming from nearby cities. The intention was not to take business from another electrician, but to provide a service for smaller jobs. Billing is at competitive and fair rates.

In response to the needs of customers, the Co-op also began selling and servicing Generac Home Standby Generators. Revenues from sales and service come primarily from customers in the surrounding region. As the workload increased, an apprentice electrician was added to the wiring department and a third one is planned for later this year.

Late last year, the Co-op added an electric vehicle and charging station to their fleet. The 2023 Tesla Model Y is utilized by staff to attend meetings and training, saving the Co-op approximately $5,000 per year in fuel costs. But it was purchased in part to allow employees to learn about the technology so they could answer questions that they were receiving from members.

This year, a grant application has been submitted to install a solar array and standby battery system at the headquarters. Again, this is a saving to the Co-op, but the Board of Directors felt it is just as important from an educational standpoint. As our generation portfolio continues to diversify, their members are exploring this technology and looking to us for answers. Their employees want to learn more about this so they can educate our members.

So how did UCEC do all this?

The key is cultivating a skilled workforce. It all starts with the employees. Without employees who are engaged, willing to work together and having the ability to look to the future, UCEC couldn’t accomplish this. They encourage our employees to think outside of the box. The UCEC Board of Directors provides opportunities for the employees to continue learning from others. The more people that the employees can interact with, the more ideas they can come up with to solve problems. 

UCEC has a young staff right now, but there is a need for more people to enter the trades. Eventually, UCEC will need more employees and what better place to get them than right here at home. In 2023, UCEC began partnering with some area high schools to bring in interns who are interested in either being electricians or linemen. This has allowed them to understand the duties of being in these trades. Further, it has given UCEC some insight into these young people and helped build relationships with their potential future workforce. These are great career opportunities. If they are hardworking and have an eagerness to learn they can have a long, meaningful career with a Rural Electric Cooperative.

Brandon Warnke, a UCEC journeyman line worker, recently spent time mentoring our summer intern Tayden Wells (Fig 1-2). This fall, Tayden will be attending Mitchell Technical College (Mitchell, SD) for Power Line Construction & Maintenance.

Matt Klein has served as General Manager for Union County Electric Cooperative in Elk Point, South Dakota since 2015. He has over 20 years of experience in the utility industry and enjoys working with the members of the Cooperative to meet their energy-related needs.

About the Author

Matt Klein

Matt Klein is General Manager at Union County Electric Cooperative in Elk Point, South Dakota.

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