In these times of pandemic-fueled uncertainty, John Dudenhoeffer is thankful for small blessings. Like his plant’s electrical power. Dudenhoeffer manages Grain Processing Corporation’s 80-acre (32-hectare) corn complex in Washington, Indiana.
“People take for granted some of the background things that have made this whole thing tolerable. But what would happen,” Dudenhoeffer wonders aloud, “if our provider wasn’t doing the right things and wasn’t able to supply electricity? You lose power,” he says with finality, “and all bets are off.”
GPC’s plant in southwestern Indiana is owned by Iowa-based Kent Corporation. It burns enough energy to process 90,000 bushels of corn each day into ethyl alcohol, corn starches and sweeteners. The plant runs 24/7. By usage, it is the biggest customer of Daviess-Martin County REMC, one of 18 member cooperatives that own Bloomington-based Hoosier Energy, a Site Selection Top 20 Utility now for two years running.
Like many value-added food suppliers, GPC’s business has boomed during the pandemic, and a $70 million expansion of the plant remains on track. That’s even as hard times have befallen many other industrial users. David Toll, vice president for administration at RushShelby Energy in Manilla, another member owner of Hoosier Energy, acknowledges that some customers are hurting.
“We have a number that are falling farther and farther behind,” Toll explains. The co-op, he says, is not disconnecting users that have fallen behind on payments, nor is it or charging late fees. Supports from Hoosier to its member co-ops have helped cushion the blow of extending such forgiveness.
Harold Gutzwiller, Hoosier’s manager of key accounts and economic development, believes that energy co-ops are singularly equipped to serve their members during a crisis such as this one.
“Each member cooperative is controlled by a local board of directors, and they can evaluate what is going on locally,” Gutzwiller tells Site Selection. “They understand what their neighbors are going through and can address those issues at a local level. And they can do it relatively quickly as opposed to an investor-owned utility that has to go before a regulatory commission or a corporate bureaucracy. I do think co-ops are uniquely situated to respond more quickly to issues that their consumers have.”
Even though it seems like ages ago, GPC’s Dudenhoeffer has vivid recollections of the pandemic’s onset.
“Back in March, there were a lot of people saying that this was really nothing, just blown out of proportion. We took it seriously, though,” Dudenhoeffer tells Site Selection. “We came out guns blazing. We started with social distancing very early on.”
The GPC complex in southern Indiana resembles an oil refinery in miniature, with integrated clusters of operations scattered about. Halting or even slowing production, Dudenhoeffer says, is never an option, so the company moved quickly and decisively to preserve continuity.
“The first thing we did was send our managers home to work from there. For the ones who couldn’t do that, we rented space downtown,” he says.
Moving the managers freed up their offices, which GPC converted to operations space, thus allowing operators to disperse from shared control rooms into individualized workstations. GPC was quick to institute temperature checks and virtual staff meetings, the latter of which have yielded some unexpected benefits, says Dudenhoeffer.
“People seem to be more concise when meeting remotely than they are in person. Several people have told me they get a lot more done when they don’t get together for morning meetings.”
For RushShelby Energy, maintaining operations to keep power flowing to customers has required flexibility and dedication, as well.
“We’re a utility company and we have to be here every day for our members,” says Toll. “We’ve instituted shifts and taken precautions to separate everybody. But there’s always someone in the office answering phones and responding to members. We’re doing our daily work to keep the system going.”
Toward a Brighter Future
In earning the 2020 designation as a Site Selection Top Utility, Hoosier Energy supported new facilities and expansions representing capital expenditures totaling $485 million. Combined, those projects are creating 2,540 new jobs. Gutzwiller says Hoosier’s customers expect the economy to bounce back.
“Our industrial and commercial base is pretty diverse, so we’re hearing all sides of the equation. But one of the things that we hear is optimism and the belief that this is a temporary issue. As for now, there’s a still a lot of uncertainty, and I think people want to get some of the nervousness out before making any big, new capital investments.”
In January, Hoosier announced a long-range resource plan intended to further bolster its ability to provide reliable, affordable and environmentally sustainable energy. The plan includes the retirement of Hoosier’s coal-fired Merom Generating Station in 2023 and a transition to a more diverse generation mix that includes a combination of low-cost wind, solar, natural gas and storage. The company says the plan will reduce Hoosier’s carbon footprint by nearly 80%, while saving members an estimated $700 million over the next two decades.
“From a primarily coal and carbon-based fuel mix, we’re going to renewables,” says Gutzwiller.
“That’s the way the business was headed already. It’s what our customers want. As far as the pandemic, I don’t think it changes much of anything as to how we continue to deliver power.”
This Investment Profile was prepared under the auspices of Hoosier Energy. For more information, visit www.hoosiersites.com, or contact Harold Gutzwiller at (812) 876-0294.
Gary Daughters is a Peabody Award winning journalist who began with Site Selection in 2016. Gary has worked as a writer and producer for CNN covering US politics and international affairs. His work has included lengthy stints in Washington, DC and western Europe. Gary is a 1981 graduate of the University of Georgia, where he majored in Journalism and Mass Communications. He lives in Atlanta with his teenage daughter, and in his spare time plays guitar, teaches golf and mentors young people.