June 29, 2012
Sioux Valley Energy's Don Marker to leave 'hardest job I ever loved'
By Gale Pifer, Contributing Reporter, Madison Daily Leader
When Don Marker steps down as general manager of Sioux Valley Energy on March 1 and heads into retirement, he'll be capping a 30-year career in rural electrification.
Marker is only the third manager in Sioux Valley's history. He took over the reins of the Colman-based cooperative from Jim Kiley. Kiley and Virgil Herriott -- the first two employees of the cooperative -- were Sioux Valley's only other managers.
Marker came to Sioux Valley as manager 15 years ago, on Jan. 1, 1998.
"There have been lots of changes over the years, especially in terms of technology," said Marker, "but Sioux Valley Energy has always stayed true to its original mission -- that of providing members with the lowest electric rates possible."
He said that rates have gone up, however, due to ever-increasing oversight, rules and regulations.
"We have to deal with a great many governmental agencies today, everything from environmental to rate making. We routinely deal with local, state and federal agencies, and have rigid safety codes and a long list of environmental issues that must be dealt with."
Marker said 30 percent of the cost of electric generation today is directly due to environmental issues.
An example of the technical improvements is the way Sioux Valley Energy tracks outages on its far-reaching service area and makes repairs. Sioux Valley Energy serves four counties in South Dakota and one in Minnesota.
Originally, members experiencing a power outage would call the cooperative; an operator would answer the phone and then put a pin on a large map indicating the trouble spot. Then the cooperative's dispatcher would radio a crewman, who would go to the location, find the problem and make repairs.
"In later years, we used sticky notes," smiled Marker.
The problem with both methods of tracking outages was that if someone slammed a door, all of the pins and sticky notes ended up on the floor.
Today, the process is so automated that a huge display board indicating all of the cooperative's lines and member locations has replaced the old mapping system. Computer-driven, the person receiving the call highlights the trouble spot. It is even possible for the members themselves to indicate their problem from home. The location of Sioux Valley trucks and crews also shows up on the map in real time.
"The advantage of our current system," said Marker, "is that if a number of people call in reporting a problem, we can more easily see where the likely problem is. It isn't necessarily at the location first reported, but may be several miles away. We can therefore dispatch crews to the trouble spot and restore service much faster."
Marker said Sioux Valley Energy continues to grow in the number of members it serves, at a rate of two to three percent per year.
"Of course, it isn't at the pace it was when the cooperative was first organized," he said
Marker said the growth of Sioux Valley Energy is at a steady pace.
"Nearly half of our electrical energy goes to commercial and industrial accounts," he said. An example is the Dakota Ethanol plant near Wentworth.
Marker said Sioux Valley Energy has always enjoyed much support from its members. Holding 11 district meetings and one annual meeting each year, he said attendance at those events has remained strong.
"We traditionally attract from 2,800 to 3,000 members at our annual meeting," Marker said, attributing that support to the cooperative's nonprofit, one-voice concept.
As a rural distribution cooperative, Marker said, Sioux Valley Energy still has the disadvantage of serving customers in sparsely populated areas.
"We have approximately 3.4 members per mile of line -- pretty good when compared to other cooperatives in more rural areas," he said. "But most municipalities and investor-owned electric companies easily have 35 customers per mile of line."
When rural electrics were established, serving rural areas without electric service was the main objective. Federal assistance was guaranteed to anyone willing to do the job, private as well as cooperative electric companies. The investor-owned power companies largely declined because they could make more money serving cities than they could distant, individual farms.
Marker stressed that the member-owned cooperative has much to be proud of beyond just supplying electricity.
He said the Operation Roundup program, in which members "round up" their energy bills to an even dollar amount, will very soon reach the $1 million mark. All of the money is allocated toward charity and community projects within the cooperative's service area.
There are no administrative fees. Each year, the cooperative asks groups to send in applications for funding, after which a board considers all requests and then makes allocations.
"This program is a credit to our members and has been duplicated in several cities in our area," he said.
Marker, who first came to Madison to work for East River Electric Power Cooperative, was then the manager of a Kentucky co-op for a short time before becoming Sioux Valley Energy's manager.
"This is the hardest job I ever loved," he said. "The utility industry is very fast-paced, but I just love it. I know that all the good things this cooperative does will continue to go on after I leave."
He said the cooperative has hired an independent executive search firm to find his replacement.
"When I leave, I know Sioux Valley Energy will be in good hands," said Marker.
Courtesy, ©Madison Daily Leader 2012