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The Heart of Public Power

July 30, 2022

by Joy Ditto
APPA President and CEO
July 30, 2022

I just came back from visiting the heartland, literally and figuratively.  I made my way to Madison, South Dakota, for the Heartland Consumers Power District meeting.  Heartland was established in 1969 and is a joint action agency serving 29 cities in South Dakota, Minnesota, Iowa, and Nebraska. I had been to South Dakota previously, including last year during a family trip to Mount Rushmore and the Crazy Horse monument. Note that my kids asked me if I was going back to those monuments when I mentioned the location of my trip – they loved them so much! But I had never been to Madison, which is about 45 minutes from Sioux Falls.  What a cute town! It has a quaint, historic downtown and a beautiful lake community. 

Upon arriving at the meeting on a crisp Tuesday morning — a nice change from the humid summer temps I had been experiencing in the former swampland of Northern Virginia/Washington, D.C. — I noticed that there was some great signage touting “Heartland Energy.”  My sleuthing skills took over and I quickly verified that a new brand was going to be unveiled for the group. As was described by Ann Hyland, chief communications officer, and Russ Olson, president and CEO, after doing a thorough job vetting the look and feel of the brand and the direction of the organization, the Board of Directors chose a name that included the term “energy” to convey action and forward movement while also depicting the literal delivery of energy the group provides to its member communities and keeping the term “Heartland.”

Heartland Energy has an incredible reputation among policymakers in South Dakota, as evidenced by participation in/attendance at their event by Governor Kristi Noem, staff members from the offices of both the state’s U.S. senators, state representatives, and commissioners from the Public Utility Commission (even though public power utilities are not directly regulated by the PUC), and the state economic development office. This is no fluke. Russ and his team focus on these relationships. These policymakers also recognize the tremendous value Heartland has provided South Dakota and the other states it serves through affordable and reliable electric rates and a major focus on economic development.

Heartland is one of about 60 joint action agencies across the country that aim to do the same thing for their member communities. The joint action model, which was pushed by many public power leaders, first in the 1950s and ‘60s and continuing into today, is so powerful because it pools the resources of small and medium communities to enable solutions they likely would not be able to achieve on their own. It marries the on-the-ground, specific community attributes that public power utilities embody with the economies of scale that can enable these communities to optimize their power supply, transmission access, and economic development priorities. The joint action model also allows communities to address other, more recent, challenges like managing supply chains, cybersecurity, and sharing line workers. 

In short, what Heartland Energy and other joint action agencies do is expand and strengthen the heart of public power so that it can beat in places it might not have otherwise: in state legislatures and governors’ offices, in regional transmission organizations’ planning committees, on the member representative committees of reliability groups, and in state economic development discussions. That public power heart beats strongly and loudly to the benefit of the customers they serve – families, the elderly, students, small-, medium-, and large businesses, and non-profit groups.

Heartland Energy CEO Russ Olson and APPA CEO Joy Ditto in Madison, South Dakota
Joy Ditto and Heartland Energy CEO Russ Olson in Madison, SD.