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Wednesday, July 27, 2016

McDonald still feels the spark

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Charles McDonald stands in front of the Shelbyville office of Duck River Electric Membership Corp., from which he will retire Friday.
(T-G Photo by John I. Carney) [Order this photo]
Even on the week of his retirement, Charles McDonald talks excitedly about future projects and initiatives at Duck River Electric Membership Corporation, his employer for the past 37 years.

McDonald, director of member services for the Shelbyville-based, multi-county electric cooperative, which serves 2,500 square miles of Middle Tennessee, will retire on Friday.

"It's been a great place to work," he said, "and a wonderful career."

Staying active

McDonald may be retiring, but he expects to remain busy. He will continue in his role as assistant to the CEO of the Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration, and said he looks forward to being part of the effort to revitalize and rebuild the show.

"It's a huge economic event for Shelbyville and Bedford County," said McDonald. "It's great for the community."

McDonald will also have more time for his hobby of collecting and exhibiting antique John Deere tractors. McDonald's tractors were on display at last week's Bedford County Fair.

"It's been a real enjoyment to me to involve my grandchildren in that," he said.

Career sparked

McDonald was working at the Times-Gazette in 1974 when Morgan Lorance, then director of member services, talked him into changing careers. He joined DREMC as an electrification advisor and then took the member services title after Lorance was promoted to general manager.

In the past 37 years, he's seen major changes in technology and communications at DREMC. When he started, there was very little automation. If there was a break in an electric line, it had to be searched for, often a time-consuming process. Now, sensors can identify a problem on an electric line within about 50 feet or so.

"That in itself has saved a tremendous amount of time," said McDonald, allowing customers' power to be restored that much sooner.

Big changes

Today, DREMC has a 24-hour dispatch center. McDonald said that 90 percent of the time, customers can talk with a human being with real information about the DREMC system. The central dispatch center can monitor outages across the DREMC system, can track the locations and activities of DREMC work crews, and can help ensure crew safety, for example by ensuring that one crew doesn't power up a line on which another crew is working a few miles away.

New advances in automation will allow dispatchers to remotely re-energize a line themselves, where in the past a work crew might have had to make a repair in one location and then drive a long distance to the nearest substation to turn the power back on.

"That's what our goal is," said McDonald, "to reduce outage time for all of our members."

Careful approach

McDonald said DREMC often takes a "wait-and-see" approach to new technology, waiting until the kinks have been worked out before adopting the next big thing. Automated electric meters, now in use in some systems, have had "plus and minus reviews" so far, but McDonald said DREMC will probably adopt the system within 3-5 years, as the technology improves.

Having each electric meter in communication with DREMC will allow DREMC to know about power outages instantly -- even before the customer, if the customer happens to be outside the house. The utility would be able to send cell phone text messages to affected customers telling them about the severity of the outage and how quickly it might be remedied.

A re-launch of DREMC's web site, expected later this summer, will include Facebook, Twitter and YouTube integration.

Personal approach

McDonald said the most satisfying part of his job has been working directly with members. Of course, sometimes those members are less than happy about rate increases. McDonald said most DREMC rate increases simply pass along the increased cost of buying electricity from Tennessee Valley Authority, DREMC's supplier.

DREMC provides a lot of advisory services to customers, for example advising them of energy-efficient technologies that can be incorporated into a new home or business. McDonald said the emphasis on energy efficiency has been "a huge part of our business in recent years."

High-tech initiatives

New demands will be put on electric utilities in the coming years as electric vehicles become more popular. DREMC president and CEO Jim Allison now drives a Chevy Volt, said McDonald, and it gets 99 miles to the gallon. Nissan, which is a DREMC customer through its plant in Decherd, will begin making electric motors there for the Nissan Leaf.

Solar energy is gaining in popularity. DREMC is now planning a demonstration solar farm which will permit members to lease access to a solar panel for less than it would cost them to install their own solar panels at home.

"The solar industry in Tennessee is growing hugely," said McDonald. The solar farm, which would be located at the DREMC site in Shelbyville, would also have educational value for the schools on nearby Learning Way.

Next steps

Brad Gibson, who joined DREMC in April from a cooperative in Ohio, has been preparing since that time to take on the member services job as McDonald retires. McDonald praised Gibson's experience, both through his previous employer and through the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, which sent Gibson to Bangladesh to help set up electric cooperatives there.

McDonald will also still be a reserve deputy with Bedford County Sheriff's Department and a volunteer with Shelbyville Fire Department.

"I'm going to stay active in the community," he said.