BOYNE CITY — Michigan’s largest member-owned electric utility is poised for new leadership as Shaun Lamp prepares to take over as president and CEO of Great Lakes Energy on March 19.
Lamp, who also serves as president and CEO of the electric cooperative’s internet service provider Truestream, has worked for Great Lakes Energy for nearly 21 years as vice president of information technology and most recently as chief operating officer. He will take over for Bill Scott, who is retiring after two decades with the utility.
In his time at Great Lakes Energy, Lamp has witnessed vast technological shifts in the utility industry that have driven more customer involvement and control over their electricity usage and, more recently, changed the way utilities source power from renewable energy. The co-op serves more than 125,000 members across a 26-county West Michigan service territory from Barry County to the Straits of Mackinac.
Lamp spoke with MiBiz this week about the co-op’s ongoing mission around power reliability and affordability, rural broadband investments, and preparing for the electric vehicle shift.
What have been some of the biggest industry changes you’ve seen over the past 21 years?
My background is in I.T., and one of the biggest changes I’ve seen is in technology and how we’ve been able to better leverage technology to serve our members to make sure we continue to offer affordable and reliable electricity. That’s what members expect from us. As times change, members want more information and want more self-service options, and we continue to implement technology that allows us to do that.
What are some of your priorities as you prepare to take over as president and CEO?
When I step back and look at it, it’s: How do I continue to make members our priority? With regard to Truestream and our fiber network, our build-out to rural Michigan will continue to be a priority. There is such a need for our rural population to get access to broadband internet. We started in 2018 and have connected over 12,000 homes and businesses so far, which covers about 27 percent of our service territory. One thing I really want to talk about is economic development. We knew that as you bring service like broadband to areas, it’s going to open a lot of doors. … It’s been huge for economic development in our area.
Then (another priority is) providing affordable, reliable electric service. The (cooperative) business model is very unique and very exciting, and it makes it really easy to come to work in the morning. We’re owned by our members, and our priorities are to serve our members. There’s challenges and opportunities with all of that. With everything going on in the world and costs going up, we’re not immune to that. It’s about how we best utilize things like technology to try to control those costs as much as possible. We’re doing a cost of service study to figure out what we should be charging for our services in 2023 and beyond, but our rates are all cost-based. We’re doing it to cover costs, not make a profit.
Are you planning any additional investments on the electricity or broadband side of the company?
We continue to invest on both sides. As you can imagine, with our electric service, which started 85 years ago, some of it is aging. We have work plans in place to go through and perform maintenance on our electric grid to make sure we have reliable service out there. With our plan in place, we will invest in fiber every year. We probably have an eight- to 10-year build-out plan to cover all of our members with fiber, but we are making significant investments each year for that initiative. There’s a lot of state and federal funding out there for infrastructure, and we are definitely exploring all of our options for broadband grant funding and electrical grants.
How is renewable energy playing a growing role in Great Lakes Energy’s portfolio?
Renewable energy plays a huge part in what we’re doing. We don’t generate any of our own electricity, we purchase it all from our power supplier, Wolverine Power (Supply Cooperative Inc.). What’s really exciting for us is that Great Lakes Energy and other co-ops in Michigan are already leaders in terms of renewable energy — over 60 percent of our power is carbon-free and about 19 percent of that is renewable. They’re only going to increase that going forward, and we work very closely with Wolverine.
Utilities are also playing a growing role in the buildout of electric vehicle infrastructure. How is Great Lakes Energy approaching this issue, and are you seeing much demand from customers?
EVs are interesting for us. We have members who are really ready for them or really want no part in even talking about it. We have to balance what we provide as options, but we’ve taken a couple of different approaches and have gotten involved with expanding our EV charging network. We’ve put multiple Level 2 and Level 3 charging stations in our territory over the past few years. That allows people to come into our areas and have that ability if they’re driving an EV and aren’t just limited to urban areas. We’ll continue to look at other options and actively work with the state of Michigan on these programs.
From an individual member standpoint, we have had an energy optimization program in place for the last 12 years. That has been state-mandated, which has gone away, but we’re continuing to do that program. Part of that program does include some rebates for EVs and EV chargers for our members.