Having worked at GRU since 1996, when she took the job of communications director and began to work her way to assistant general manager of customer support for the five combined utilities, it is safe to say that Kathy Viehe knows GRU.
As familiar as she is with the utility, Viehe has been seeing things from a different perspective since replacing former General Manager Bob Hunzinger, who resigned effective Nov. 15.
Although her responsibilities have increased during her time at GRU, assuming the reigns at the top has been like “drinking from a fire hose,” she said.
Viehe brings her friendly, candid style and impatience with obfuscation to the job.
Business in the Heart of Florida interviewed Viehe and asked her about the position, including how she plans to put her stamp on GRU’s corporate culture and how she intends to address high electric rates.
How does this seat look differently from your last seat?
It’s a lot more complex. I’m working a lot more hours. I have never been a morning person, and I am now. I have to be; there’s just so much to do. And it’s fun. There are days that I’m pretty tired and pretty frustrated, but overall it’s given me a lot of energy and a lot of hope.
What are the things that you’re hopeful about?
I’ll talk about four areas.
The most important issue is electric rates. Although our rates are high right now, it’s important to remember that they have not always been high. They’ve generally been lower to in the middle of the pack within Florida, and it took a while to get here.
So we need to take a long-range approach to rates. I can’t blink my eyes and then next week our rates come down. The pressure on our rates isn’t just from the biomass plant. We constantly have regulatory changes and pressures that have led to hundreds of millions of dollars of investments in air quality control systems, technology security requirements, and water and wastewater facilities. Another factor is that our sales have declined because we’ve done a great job with our energy efficiency programs — while during the economic downturn, people adjusted their lifestyles because of the pinch that they were feeling.
The decline in sales has hurt our ability to spread the cost of our expenses, many of which are fixed.
We’re holding strategic planning meetings to try to mitigate future rate increases. We’re looking at what we can do to lessen the steepness of the rate increase planned for 2015.
We also have worked with the Chamber of Commerce to develop an economic development rate. We will be able to provide a discount to new companies and to companies that are expanding. We can do this without impacting the cost to other customers, and then spread the additional revenue across expenses to help manage rates for all of our customers.
The economic development incentive rate, adopted by the Commission in December, will give qualifying customers that locate to our service area up to a 20 percent discount on base rate components each year over five years. This rate still must be approved through two ordinance readings.
There’s also a retention piece. If a large customer is here and wants to grow their load beyond what it already uses, and meets certain thresholds, then they can receive a 15 percent discount on base rates each year over five years.
These two options don’t cost our customers anything because we’re growing the load, which increases our revenue and helps us reduce upward rate pressure.
My second goal is to increase trust with the community. We are becoming more transparent and providing information in a timely, accurate manner.
I went out to Turkey Creek to hear their concerns about the biomass plant. I knew that the residents would be upset, and I don’t blame them. Although the meeting was difficult, by the end, they understood that we would be available to listen.
We’re trying to set up a committee with a representative from GRU, somebody who knows the world of power plants, a representative of GREC (the owner of the biomass plant) and some Turkey Creek residents. When things happen at the plant, members of the committee will be able to communicate with other homeowners.
This approach follows the basic tenets of communication. It’s not rocket science. It means talking to people, answering their questions and trying to be a good neighbor.
My third focus is on employee morale. Our employees have felt very much criticized over the past couple of years. I want to make sure that our employees feel valued for the contributions they make.We have very good reliability for our power. We have very good drinking water. We have a very good environmental record.We’re trying to bring different employees in front of the commission so that the commissioners can see that these are the people who are running the utility — not me.
Finally, we need to maintain and enhance our service. Whether it is in our call center or out in the field or tree trimming or responding to a power outage at midnight, we need to make sure that we provide very good service to our customers. While we’re not perfect, by in large our employees do provide really great service. We started an effort called Total Service Excellence as a way to do business. We have a self-directed work team involved with this effort.
How much flexibility does GRU have in slowing the increase in utility rates?
We can work on two things: we can decrease our expenses or we can increase our revenues. We’re developing a strategic plan to address opportunities in these two areas. We have a team looking at increasing wholesale sales. We’re involving people who generally don’t look at wholesale sales so we can take a fresh look. We’re long on energy right now, producing more energy than we need. Selling some of the power on the wholesale market will reduce the rate pressure.
Is there anything GRU can do to reduce the impact of the biomass plant on rates?
We’re exploring all kinds of ideas to lessen the impact on our customers, and we have various members of our staff and outside experts working on lessening the rate increases resulting from the plant.
Are you going to pursue the power agreement with the University of Florida, which Duke Energy now holds, that expires in December 2014?
We have a really good relationship with UF, and they are one of our largest customers away from the main campus. We want to participate in discussions about the contract for the campus, and we’re working on it. Duke Energy has the advantage of being the incumbent. On the other hand, we’re local, and I think we’re pretty efficient and effective in what we do.