When a Tribe owns its own utility company, “you control more of your destiny,” says Yakama Power General Manager Ray Wiseman. (Courtesy Yakama Power)
Yakama Nation’s utility company provides services, great jobs while bolstering sovereignty
Yakama Power provides much more than just electric, high-speed internet and phone service to the sprawling Yakama Nation. The Tribally-owned company is also building a thriving, sustainable economy by providing Tribal members with stable, high-paying jobs.
In 2004, Yakama staff member Ray Wiseman was given a new assignment—create a Tribal utility company. Wiseman, who started with the Tribe as a forester, had been working on a project to install a wide area network to connect various government entities. “I became the GIS [geographic information system] manager and then the data manager,” he says. “We were installing fiber optics.”
The Yakama Tribal Council was also concerned about how to create jobs on its 1.4-million-acre reservation. “In 90 years of receiving electric service, no Tribal member had ever been employed by the power utilities,” says Wiseman. In addition to the high wages earned by electrical workers—Wiseman says that the base salary for a lineman is $90,000, which regularly tops $100,000 with overtime—the Tribe wanted local control over how the utility operated. And, “we felt we could provide better service and benefits,” says Wisemen. So, the onetime forester undertook a crash course in utility management.
After two years of hard work, which included meeting the stringent operational criteria of the Bonneville Power Association, the federal agency that oversees electric utilities in the Northwest, Yakama Power began delivering electricity to 132 customers, about half of which were Tribal or federal entities. That included the Tribal government campus, the Indian Health Service, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, other agencies and Tribal enterprises including their (now closed) RV park, Yakama Forest Products and Legends Casino. “We started with a bang,” says Wiseman. “We wanted to prove we were serious.”
That’s because they had something to prove to skeptics. “The pressure was on,” says Wiseman. “Lots of people said we were going to fail.”
But, Yakama Power, at one time the smallest utility in the Northwest, has the last laugh. Wiseman oversees two complete crews, all Tribal members. In fact, all but two of the company’s employees are Native. And the little utility with just 3 MW of power to deliver now serves 3,000 customers with 18MW of power, at an average monthly cost savings of $25, or $300 a year. That can mean a lot to families or to elders on fixed incomes.
Yakama Power’s influence on the Tribal economy isn’t just jobs and cheaper power, though. Wiseman noted in a 2017 presentation that for one 10-year period, more than $301 million in electricity bill payments were made to off-reservation companies. And, another $26 million was lost in wages, contracts and Tribal vendors not being used. However, in 2017, with Yakama Power capturing 29 percent of the electric market, nearly one-third of those dollars are staying within the Tribal community, being circulated to on-reservation vendors, businesses and contractors. That creates a more sustainable and vibrant economy, according to the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. The organization found that for each $100 spent at a locally-owned business, some $48 stays within that community.
The Yakama Tribal community also benefits when the utility puts even more Tribal members to work. Wiseman says that Yakama Power now uses Tribal subcontractors exclusively for construction jobs instead of having to contract out of the community. “We construct all our own lines,” he says. Also, “We buy all our fuel from the Tribal gas station,” Wiseman says. “I never saw any of the outside utilities purchase fuel at our gas station.”
Growing a Skilled Workforce—A Slow Start, Rapid Results
But it hasn’t always been easy going for the growing utility. Wiseman says that finding Tribal members to grow into electrical workers was at first a daunting task. For one thing, no Tribal members had any training or experience as linemen or other skilled tradespeople needed to keep homes and businesses powered up. “At first, we resorted to just requiring a valid driver’s license for our apprentices,” says Wiseman. The training is also grueling, as to become a fully qualified lineman, an apprentice must work some 7,000 hours and pass several tough tests with a grade of 80 or above. “It’s about a 50 percent washout rate for apprentices,” he says. And, as Wiseman notes, the life of an electrical worker, although very well compensated, can be hard, as they can be called out at any time—and in any weather conditions—to restore power. But it’s all worth it, Wiseman says. “There’s nothing like watching a lineman who graduates from the apprenticeship after all that work,” he says. “You have these role models to see that constitutes success.”
However, as word spread about how much these jobs paid, Tribal members saw the value in putting in the hours and obtaining preliminary certifications before even applying for an apprenticeship with Yakama Power. “We have role models now,” says Wiseman, “and people who say, ‘I want to do that.’” In fact, “I found a whole bunch of people who are willing to go out on Christmas Eve and turn the power back on,” says Wiseman.
Yakama Power is also looking to the future. When cutting trees in the way of power lines, for example, the crews don’t just throw them in a chipper: the trunks are cut up for firewood, that’s distributed to churches, elders and sweat lodges. “We use a biodegradable oil, Envirotemp FR3,” says Wiseman. “It costs more but in case of accidents, it’s non-toxic.” The utility also builds new lines with an eye to the future, using heavier wire to areas where new building is planned. “Most utilities only build to what’s needed at the moment,” Wiseman says. But, “We look at things differently,” he says.
The utility also helps customers by offering hourly usage rates, which can be accessed online, to help monitor electric consumption with an eye to saving money. Yakama Power also uses automatic meter reading technology, or AMI. These meters can be read directly from the office, eliminating the need for meter readers. The meters can also be used for water service, which Yakama Power is looking into providing.
Even more technology is on the horizon, says Wiseman, with the goal of eventually serving the entire reservation. “We were dead last when we started, now we’re the second-largest utility on the reservation,” he says.
But Yakama Power is more than just a utility offering low-cost electric service and stable, well-paying jobs. “[Owning and operating a utility company] is a really good thing for Tribes,” says Wiseman. “Forming a utility has immediate benefits. It allows the Tribe to have jurisdictional control; you control more of your destiny.”