Duane Highley of Electric Cooperatives of Arkansas (Exec Q&A)

Duane Highley has been with Electric Cooperatives of Arkansas since November 2011.

Background: Highley joined Electric Cooperatives of Arkansas in November 2011. He has worked in the utility industry for 28 years, previously serving as director of power production at Associated Electric Cooperative of Springfield, Mo.

Education: Highley graduated with bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the Missouri University of Science & Technology in Rolla.

Q: What inspired you to enter the energy field in general and the cooperative field in particular?

As a child I loved to tinker with electrical projects, so the thought of harnessing and delivering energy as a career appealed to me. That led me to an engineering major in college and a summer internship with an electric cooperative. I learned that every time we could find a way to save a dollar, that dollar was sent back as savings to the customers (we call them “members” because they actually own the cooperative). Saving money for the end user transformed my passion for electricity from just another career to a mission of service.

You serve as president and CEO over two separate corporations that make up part of the Electric Cooperatives of Arkansas and also assist 17 different distribution cooperatives serving 500,000 members. How do you manage consistency among all these different business units?

We stay focused on our purpose. Everything we do in each of our business units is for the benefit of the member-owner at the end of the line — keeping his power reliable and affordable. This concept of working for the members we serve, improving their lives and their communities, is at the heart of all we do: It unifies our entire workforce. My job is to help share that vision and keep us all aligned behind the same goal, as well as ensuring that the wonderful people of this organization have the resources they need to get the job done.

How are changing energy sources going to affect the electric cooperative business?

Electric cooperatives strive to keep rates as low as possible. Over the years, the Arkansas cooperatives have added cost-effective renewable hydroelectric and wind energy to our low-cost coal and gas-based generation portfolio. The addition of these low-cost renewable resources helps to keep rates stable, and every co-op member gets renewable energy as part of his supply. We are concerned about proposals that would mandate the addition of high-cost renewable resources or eliminate low-cost fossil fuels from the energy mix. In the same way that a balanced investment portfolio provides protection for an uncertain retirement future, Arkansas utilities need the ability to maintain a balanced portfolio of energy assets.

To explore the benefits of solar energy in Arkansas, we installed rooftop panels on one of our office buildings in Little Rock. After several years of data collection, we have learned that solar power is not yet affordable for our members, with a payback on investment of 50 years. We have also deployed wind measurement equipment to identify the best sites for wind energy in Arkansas.

Is the rural client base growing, shrinking or staying flat? How does that movement (or lack) affect your business?

We are slowly adding new members, but at a rate that is about half of what it was before 2008 (2 percent per year versus the previous 4 percent). But we don’t measure our success by how much energy we sell. We are happy to see members continuing the trend of using energy more efficiently, which helps family budgets and corporate growth.