When Kelsey Gustainis started at Tri-County Electric Cooperative shortly after graduating from Texas Tech University, she was already an experienced engineer. While a college intern at another Texas co-op, South Plains EC, she filled in for two employees: a system planner who went on maternity leave and her mentor, a senior engineer who left to work at another co-op.
“She demonstrated her ability to carry on the advanced work of a full-time employee as an intern,” says Janet Rehberg, her supervisor and Tri-County’s vice president of engineering and chief strategy officer. “Her passion for engineering, the co-op and community truly make her stand out.”
Gustainis started at Tri-County in 2018 as an operations engineer and was promoted in mid-June. Along the way, NRECA chose her to join its Analytics, Resiliency and Reliability Member Advisory Group, and the co-op asked her to present its 2021 workplan proposal before the board.
She says she’s proud of her rapid ascent at the co-op and in how her automated operations and engineering processes can “make everyone else’s job easier.” She cites a project that uses software to turn raw SCADA historical data into highly visual reports to help engineers in system planning.
“If you have a passion for what you’re doing here, there’s a vast amount of opportunity at Tri-County that’s unparalleled,” says Gustainis. “It’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen.”
'The Go-To Guy'
Whether it's on a power pole or a wrestling mat, Jason Fish instills discipline, integrity and focus. At Niobrara Electric Association, his steady rise from journeyman to line superintendent over 20 years shows he's a respected leader.
“Jason is a go-to guy," writes Twyla Barker, the co-op's HR/benefits administrator. “People gravitate toward Jason for his style of leadership, intelligence and work ethic. Peers trust his judgment and feel secure in his handling of any task, because they know his level of commitment and his integrity."
Fish's favorite part of his job is mentoring young apprentices.
“I like seeing guys start out and progress, both on the job and maturity-wise. A lot of times, they come in and they're not mature, so I like seeing them growing up and becoming better at their craft and just becoming better people."
There are a lot of similarities between coaching young wrestlers, which he does at Lusk Rawhide Wrestling, and teaching line apprentices on the job or at the Cody Hotline School, where he teaches.
“I'm the one who comes up with strategy, game plans and methods, but the linemen and athletes are the ones who perform," he says. “They are the ones that deserve all the credit."
'An Ability to Connect the Dots'
Kyle Chester has made it his mission to promote Dakota Electric Association’s energy programs to government agencies and businesses and ensure each offering meets the member’s needs. Since November 2019, the organizations he’s signed up for the co-op’s load management, energy rebate and other plans consume some 35,000 megawatt-hours annually.
“Kyle’s ability to connect the dots between programs and goals has become an extremely valuable asset for Dakota Electric and the community,” writes Jeffrey Rainey, the co-op’s economic development director.
Chester says his favorite part of the job is matching programs to organizations. The U.S. Department of Energy is considering his concept of an “Electric First Municipal Campus” in the city of Burnsville for a Connected Communities grant. If funded, the project will show how groups of buildings combined with distributed energy resources can reliably and cost-effectively serve as grid assets.
But sometimes, “it’s the fun, small projects” that are the most rewarding, he says. Those include presenting a local sheriff’s office with a pair of electric bikes for trail patrols and enrolling 165 workforce housing units in “Cycled Air Conditioning,” an energy conservation program that saves members money on the hottest days of the year.
“In the end, my job is making sure the city or organization I’m working with is successful in what they’re trying to do. Finding those win-win opportunities is what really keeps me going.”
'Stone Age to the Space Age'
“We like to say that Katie Pfennigs very quickly took us from the stone age to the space age," says Ross Holter, Flathead Electric Cooperative's director of energy and member services.
Pfennigs plays down the compliment, but her accomplishments with the co-op's marketing and communications efforts do speak for themselves.
Under her leadership, the co-op completed a corporate rebranding, rebuilt the website, digitized member paper interactions and put scholarship and grant applications on a web-based platform.
Improving those “bread and butter" communication functions built a foundation for other areas, says Pfennigs. One such innovation was a new text-based outage-notification system, an effort she admits can be “a hard hurdle" for electric utilities.
“I believe we should tell our members what we know as soon as we know it, but there are a lot of fears in the industry."
Pfennigs played a key role in the cross-departmental effort that made the opt-in text-messaging system possible.
“We've really tried just to meet our members where they are, and where they are in a lot of cases now is online and on their mobile device."
Early next year, Pfennigs will become the co-op's community relations manager, a promotion she's looking forward to.
“I love what I do, improving processes to make communication better for our members and helping the industry advance."
'She Took the Challenge'
After spending a few years overhauling Cullman Electric Co-op's social media and digital presence with improved analytics and greater member engagement, Bonnie Baty recently took the lead in marketing its new broadband service, Sprout Fiber Internet. Since launching in January 2021, Sprout has already connected over 700 members.
Before the co-op embarked on the endeavor, “we had been told fiber would become an all-consuming monster project," writes Communications Manager Brian Lacy in Baty's nomination. “She knew it. She took the challenge anyway and has spent countless hours and many long nights learning about a new technology and the new business model."
Baty has worked on the project from its inception but has ended up in an unexpected role.
“What started as a marketing coordinator's position has evolved into a multi-faceted B2B sales/customer service/public relations/advertising role," she says. “I love customer service. And I love project management. I thoroughly enjoy what I am doing."
Baty is proud to have a hand in Sprout's success.
“I'm excited about what this is going to mean for our community and our future. In 10 years, Cullman County will look totally different than what it looks like today."
Thinking in a Different Way
Michael Jennings understands that members want two main things from their co-op: reliable, affordable electric service and access to technologies that will give them greater control over their energy use. In the short time he’s been at New Hampshire Electric Cooperative, he’s delivered results on both.
“One of his greatest strengths is his ability to think about the distribution system in a different way to help NHEC achieve its strategic vision of supporting our members’ increasing adoption of distributed energy resources,” writes CEO Steve Camerino in his nomination. “At the same time, Michael is helping to lead our cooperative into the future so we can meet our members’ changing needs.”
Some of Jennings’ biggest accomplishments include implementing an aggressive substation transformer replacement program and enabling the co-op to take new steps in distribution automation. With an eye toward the future, he’s also supported integration of the state’s largest battery storage system as well as improving the co-op’s capacity to absorb individual distributed energy resources.
Along the way, Jennings has won accolades for building a positive, inclusive work environment that allows his team to thrive.
“We’ve been very active in taking advantage of opportunities as they’ve come up. We’re doing the most for our members day in and day out on projects that have a large impact.”
'Make a Difference Where You Live'
Jen Hoss is one of several 2021 Rising Stars who started her job during the pandemic—working remotely with no opportunity to acclimate in person. Since joining Arkansas Electric Cooperative Corp. in June 2020, Hoss has been instrumental in closing two Rural Utilities Service loans worth more than $200 million and is helping to develop the G&T’s 2030 strategic plan.
AECC General Counsel Lori Burrows first met Hoss when she was an attorney at the Arkansas Public Service Commission.
“I knew her to be a quick study, affable and easygoing,” writes Burrows in her nomination. “Jen is strategically minded and business-focused and is an asset to our team and a credit to cooperatives everywhere.”
Hoss says she’s dedicated to attracting a more diverse pool of young professionals to the G&T, the energy industry and the Little Rock region. She recently moderated a panel on trends and expectations of young professionals for Arkansas Women in Power. As a board member of Create Little Rock, a chamber of commerce initiative, she co-chaired Pop Up in the Rock, a three-day live event showcasing the city, and is an active member of the Junior League of Little Rock.
It’s all part of her personal motto of community engagement.
“I think it’s important to make a difference where you live, even if it is not the same place where you grew up.”
'Turning Out the Next Generation'
As an established authority in lineworker safety and training for Ohio’s Electric Cooperatives, Dwight Miller was a bit embarrassed when he learned he was a 2021 Rising Star.
But as the founder of one of the few indoor lineworker training centers owned by co-ops, he’s turning out the next generation of rising star instructors to guide tomorrow’s crews.
Since the launch of Central Ohio Lineworker Training (COLT) in 2017, the majority of Ohio and West Virginia co-op lineworkers have gone through the program, a national model where apprentices learn safe work practices and the craft of linework itself.
“Many of the changes that are taking place in the Ohio cooperatives’ safety programs can be traced back to the efforts that Dwight has made to establish the training facility, as well as many of the other creative initiatives that he’s instituted,” writes Steve Savon, OEC safety and regulatory consultant.
Helping co-op employees get back home safely to their families every night has been Miller’s passion since he first entered the business as a contract lineman in 1985.
“It was easy to see that the investor-owned utilities had the great apprenticeship programs, and the co-ops just kind of got the crumbs. It was no secret that our programs were less than stellar,” says Miller. “‘It doesn’t have to be that way,’ I thought. That inspired me to make a difference through a great apprenticeship program.”
At COLT, Miller has ceded daily teaching duties to three instructors.
“It was the right thing to do, to give it to those who are currently taking things to a completely different level, way beyond my capabilities.”
Dedication and Tenacity
“Roanoke Connect is my baby,” says Carol Ward. “I’ve been with it from the very beginning, from the time that we connected our first subscriber in 2017 to now.”
Ward’s dedication and tenacity have helped Roanoke Electric’s broadband initiative flourish, from its early years to now, when it recently signed up its 1,000th customer.
“Carol has been a major contributor to making our new startup company successful,” writes President and CEO Curtis Wynn. “The future of our cooperative hinges on the success of this project, and because of her and others, this project will be highly successful.”
Ward’s background in customer information systems was an asset as she took on the huge task of merging the co-op’s electric and broadband businesses into one billing system, which they finished in May.
“We had one system for broadband and one system for electric,” she says. “It was kind of hectic.”
Ward’s favorite aspect of her co-op job is the camaraderie and family-oriented atmosphere. When Roanoke Connect scores another success, everyone celebrates—just like a family.
After the subsidiary hooked up its first subscriber in November, “the installer sent us a photo showing that it was connected,” she says. “We almost cried. It was just so exciting.”
'I Just Love to be Able to Help'
Since coming to Central REC in 2013 as a facilities laborer, Branham has risen through the ranks, first becoming an energy services and business development representative and finally her current director job, where she oversees a staff of nine.
“In that role, Branham has led the co-op in our transition to the utilization of dashboards, data and analytics, which has helped us improve processes and make better-informed decisions,” writes CEO Hunter Robinson.
For Branham, using data to justify business decisions is a “cool process.”
“Data adds so much value to the co-op, for us to be able to have a gut feeling about something and then go look at the data and be able to verify, ‘Yes, that’s what the data’s telling us as well.’”
Branham taught herself Tableau, an interactive data visualization software, and is skilled enough to teach others. That fluency has been invaluable in diagnosing potential staking and line designs as the co-op’s broadband subsidiary, CentraNet, adds more members.
Software proficiency also has resulted in quicker installations of new orders and more balanced workloads for staking technicians and other crews.
“I’m here to provide a service or improve the quality of life for co-workers and members and empower them to do whatever they want to do… build a house or start a business. I just love to be able to help.”