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May 2013 Issue

Mayl 2013
Feature 1

UN-ENERGIZED

Feature 2

Catching
Copper Crooks

Editorial

EDITORIAL
"Civil Service"

Wisconsin Favorites
Wisconsin Favorites
"No Minor Sight..."

 

 

UN-ENERGIZED

Bureaucracy Bogs Down Electrician Licensing

 

“Patience, persuasion, and persistence paid off for Wisconsin’s electric cooperatives as the State Legislature last month closed out regular business for its two-year term.” So said this magazine in April 2008, adding, “Through 2007 and early ’08, long-held priorities on the co-op legislative agenda finally negotiated the rocky path to enactment and were signed into law last month along with newer items of concern that moved through the process more swiftly.”

All of that was true then and all of it remains true today. But as many of life’s lessons teach us, sometimes it takes more than enacting a law to accomplish the desired result.

One of those “long-held priorities on the co-op legislative agenda” referenced above—a uniform, statewide licensing standard for electricians—is a case in point. On March 5, 2013, legislation delaying full applicability of electrician licensing for one year passed the State Senate and was signed into law soon after.

The new law does two things: It pushes back the effective date of licensing requirements to April 1, 2014, from April 1 this year; it also preserves the validity of both already-issued statewide licenses and licenses that may be issued by individual municipalities in accordance with local option, until the new effective date of the statewide law.

There aren’t a lot of formal limits on what the Legislature can and cannot do, but one thing it seldom does is revisit a law it enacted just a few years earlier after winning the consent of many stakeholders in a lengthy and laborious process—and then decide not to apply that law for a while longer.

Over-ruled

Throughout the long legislative history of electrician licensing, various interests have raised concerns, usually honest, about restrictions on what activities are allowed without a license and the need for reasonable exemptions for work that doesn’t demand a high level of training.

Many of those concerns were resolved before the law was passed. Not unexpectedly, some continue to be raised, and stakeholders continue to discuss them. A “trailer bill” to address lingering questions about licensing requirements, though not yet drafted, was in preparation at press time for this article.

But the proximate cause of the delaying legislation was that by early this year, it was obvious that the administrative rules to carry out the mandated licensing and electrical inspection programs were not going to be finalized in time for the April 1 deadline.

That deadline arrived five years and 12 days after the bill directing the creation of the rules was signed into law. Notwithstanding that some of the issues are complicated, it is difficult to pin down a convincing reason why development of the rules remains incomplete after all this time.

Originally the responsibility of the state Department of Commerce, two sets of rules were needed: one prescribing the standards for licensing electricians at several skill levels (and identifying the tasks they would be qualified to perform) and one spelling out the details of a statewide electrical-inspection program to ensure work is performed in accordance with electrical codes.

The licensing rules have fared the best. They were completed two years ago and have been partially applied. Still missing is the final deadline for people doing electrical work to become qualified, pass an exam, and obtain a license—the purpose of the five-year window between enactment of the law and its full application.

At press time, the inspection rules were still unready.

A variety of factors have been cited. People close to the situation have told Wisconsin Energy Cooperative News that in the earlier years of rule development, the Commerce Department hoped to revise the planned distribution of revenue from inspection fees.

Virtually all inspections are and would be performed locally. When the licensing law was passed, only four electrical inspectors were employed on a statewide basis; currently there are only two. But access to inspection fees could help finance state operations or flow to local municipalities, and in a cash-strapped budget year, they would have been attractive to both levels of government.

Rule development further languished as key department employees involved with the process retired.

Then, with the advent of the Walker administration, a reorganization eliminated the Commerce Department and reassigned its duties among other state agencies. Electrician rulemaking is now the task of the Department of Safety and Professional Services.

A participant in continuing talks on the issue told us in mid-April the inspection rules were “ready but not quite.”

What’s at Stake

Wisconsin regulates and licenses numerous occupations that involve little or no risk to public safety. Testifying at a legislative hearing more than five years ago, an electric co-op spokesman pointed out that the state licenses interior decorators, and yet he’d “never heard of anybody’s house burning down because the carpet clashed with the drapes.”

This February, at an Assembly Labor Committee hearing on the delaying bill, David Boetcher of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers said in seven years working on the issue, “I think the biggest thing that struck me across those years was if you walked up to the average person and told them electricians aren’t licensed, they’d say what? You’re kidding.”

With implementation on hold for another 11 months, lawmakers are hoping to clear up a few lingering issues, like questions raised by Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce over whether employees in a manufacturing setting would be unreasonably restricted from performing basic tasks involved in repositioning existing equipment.

State Representative Tom Larson (R–Colfax), who has agreed to take the lead in developing a trailer bill, told us in April, “My goal is to identify the problems stakeholders have with the current law and to find common-sense solutions.”

Facilitating interstate employment opportunities was also a goal of the original bill, as unlicensed Wisconsin electricians are prohibited from working in Michigan and Minnesota. But some have cited a need to better reconcile Wisconsin law with the requirements of the other states. Larson told us he wants to make sure this state’s licensing standards are such that Wisconsin electricians will be able to “easily” accept work in other states under reciprocity agreements.

Forging Ahead

Five years ago, we closed our story celebrating enactment of the licensing law with a statement about “the time people are willing to invest in an idea, an ingredient of legislative success in which cooperative members seem to have an edge.” We added, “Patient, persistent advocacy by co-op leaders from across the state has accomplished what common sense couldn’t safely be left to achieve on its own.”

True then, true today; and so the patient, persistent advocacy goes on.—Dave Hoopman, director of regulatory affairs, Electric Division, Cooperative Network

 

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Catching Copper Crooks

Co-ops Get Creative To Stop Metal Thieves

It’s a crazy way to make a quick buck, when you figure that $10 worth of stolen copper can lead to serious injury or death. In one recent incident, the sparks flew when a thief broke into a substation owned by a Kansas electric cooperative and caused substantial electrical arcing. In his attempt to get at reels of copper wire, he shorted out a high-voltage electrical system and created a hazard that could have spelled instant death.

But with metal theft, it’s not just the crook who potentially suffers—all co-op consumers do. “Even someone who manages to get away with only $100 worth of copper, he or she could cause thousands of dollars in damage to co-op equipment, which is eventually repaid by consumer-members through rates,” notes Maurice Martin, a program manager for the Cooperative Research Network (CRN), the research and development arm of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association. “Thieves, for their part, stand an incredible risk for burns, electrocution, or even death, and when they tamper with equipment, they leave behind safety hazards for co-op employees who make repairs. There’s also the potential for power outages to consumers served by a vandalized substation or stretch of line.”

In 2008 alone, copper theft cost electric utilities more than $60 million, according to a study by the Electrical Safety Foundation International.

While criminals seldom make a lot of money off of stolen scrap metal, copper theft continues to rise. The price of copper has skyrocketed in the past decade, urged on by international demand. The sluggish economic recovery and even drug use means some people look to stripping copper wire as a quick way to make a buck.

“When metal prices go up, you see a corresponding rise in copper theft,” Martin explains. “Substations have large amounts of extractable copper, so they’re especially vulnerable.”

Fighting Back

The uptick in occurrences means electric co-ops must get both tough and creative in fighting copper crime. Security at substations ranges from simple game cameras to sophisticated alert systems integrated with a co-op’s dispatch computer.

One intrusion-spotting technique employs vibration sensors. “When the earth is moving and nobody’s supposed to be at that substation, you have a pretty good idea that a pickup truck or carload of troublemakers has arrived,” remarks Brian Sloboda, CRN senior program manager. “The motion triggers an automatic alarm that also alerts law enforcement.”

Other technologies are less obvious, such as tiny dots the size of a grain of sand containing a laser-etched numerical code that’s sprayed onto copper cable. If the copper is stolen and brought to a scrap dealer, the recycler can shine a blacklight on it, see the code, and know who legally owns it.

But technology alone won’t stop metal theft. Electric co-ops often rely on the alertness of their consumer-members to catch perpetrators in the act.

In fact, two years ago we reported  (June 2011 edition of WEC News) how an alert scrap-metal dealer aided Wisconsin’s Oconto Electric Co-op in apprehending thieves who had stolen aluminum wire from a fenced-in pole yard next to a substation.

For his efforts, the Oconto Falls dealer was presented $2,500 from the Wisconsin Electric Cooperative Association’s reward program for information leading to conviction of thieves and vandals who damage co-op property.

Electric co-ops are also going on the offensive by launching awareness campaigns, reinforcing that metal theft not only kills, but also equals higher costs for everyone.

Laying Down the Law

In February, legislation was reintroduced at the federal level that would make metal theft a crime punishable by up to 10 years in prison, a fine, or both. It would also require sellers to show proof that they own or are authorized to sell the metal, and recyclers would need to have “a reasonable basis to believe” that the documentation is valid. Dealers found in violation would face a civil penalty of up to $10,000.

Forty-eight states already have metal theft laws, including Wisconsin, which in 2008 passed an electric cooperative-backed measure that mandated dealers maintain more detailed records identifying those who sell them scrap metals. The new law also made thieves directly responsible for the replacement cost (not just scrap value) of stolen materials.

“There’s no one solution to metal theft,” Manager Share Brandt of the Wisconsin Electric Cooperative Association concludes. “A combination of tougher laws, smart prevention tactics, and observant consumer-members is necessary to prevent this activity.”—Magen Howard, National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, and WEC News staff

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EDITORIAL
by Perry Baird

Top: 1967: Congressmen and staffs mingle at a co-op dinner.

Middle: 1969: Congressional colleagues Dave Obey and Bill Steiger hike the Capitol steps.

Bottom: 1985: Reps. Steve Gunderson and Ron Dellums joke with Sen. Bob Kasten in La Crosse.

Delving into our photo archives for a recent presentation, I came across some intriguing images from past legislative efforts of the Wisconsin statewide electric co-op association. What struck me in the old photos, and ultimately also got noticed by the audience I shared them with, was how friendly members of Congress appeared to be—with each other—in years past. It seemed a stark contrast to the partisan polarity that has crept into legislative considerations at both federal and state levels recently.

One photo, snapped May 16, 1967, at a Washington, D.C., dinner hosted by our state’s electric cooperatives, shows Democrat and Republican members of Wisconsin’s congressional delegation and their staffs clearly enjoying each other’s company.

Two years later, in May 1969, our camera caught a photo of the youngest Republican and the youngest Democrat in the entire U.S. House of Representatives—both from Wisconsin—as they congenially walked the Capitol steps together. William Steiger was 31 and Dave Obey was 30, and the congressmen didn’t object to being photographed together. In fact, Editor Les Nelson prevailed upon them to hike the steps numerous times as he gunned photos.

Across Parties

In June 1985, I managed to photograph a chance meeting in the La Crosse airport terminal between lawmakers of widely varying political views: Wisconsin Rep. Steve Gunderson, California Rep. Ron Dellums, and Wisconsin Sen. Bob Kasten. I distinctly remember Dellums say about Kasten, as Gunderson was taking him across the room to introduce him to the senator, “I love that guy,” referencing a recent legislative stance Kasten had taken. What are the chances of hearing such collegial references between members of opposite parties—and different houses of Congress—these days?

The images offer some visual proof that encounters between those of different political parties haven’t always deteriorated into acrimony, and that respect and admiration are possible even when sides get taken on legislative matters.

In a way, our ability to capture these affable images at meetings we’ve prompted also shows that electric cooperatives have navigated the political waters between—and most often with—legislators of varying political persuasions. Electric co-ops have had to.

Through Time

Founded 78 years ago this month by a presidential executive order, the Rural Electrification Administration was part of New Deal programs advanced by a Democrat administration. In the days since Franklin Roosevelt was president, the rural electrification program has spanned 12 additional administrations, equally split between Republican and Democrat, as well as 34 sessions of Congress and thousands of elected representatives and senators.

As the years have advanced, so has the variety of legislative and regulatory issues we look to our elected officials to help us with. We work with, and appreciate, anyone who values the co-ops’ ongoing mission to provide rural America with high quality electric energy at reasonable prices.

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A visit to the city of Platteville yields an unexpected surprise: This is where you’ll find the “World’s Largest M.” You can’t miss it; the huge white letter built on the side of Platte Mound four miles northeast of the city looms into view as you approach the area on Highway 151. You can see the massive M—241 feet high and 214 feet wide—from miles away, but it’s worth a closer look for anyone interested in local history, feats of engineering, or just a great view.

The giant M is a symbol of the area’s mining tradition and the history of the University of Wisconsin– Platteville, whose roots include the Wisconsin Mining School. To reach the M’s wide base, travelers wind through countryside that is now rich with farm fields but was once valued for its abundance of lead. Visitors can climb the 266 steps along the side of the M to the top of Platte Mound for a spectacular view that extends into Illinois and Iowa.

Now is an especially meaningful time to visit as the iconic symbol marked its 75th anniversary during the 2012–2013 academic year.

According to UW– Platteville documentation, a pair of Wisconsin Mining School students stomped a large “M” in the heavy snow on the Platte Mound in 1936. The image was frozen into place during the particularly cold winter, with a noticeable amount of dirt accumulated in the frozen pathway adding to its visibility.

The following spring, another student suggested constructing a stone M into the mound. Students embraced the idea of a permanent M, setting out to make Platteville’s M the largest in the country, even larger than than the Colorado School of Mines’ M, which was 200 feet high.

After permission was obtained from the landowner, the director of the Wisconsin Mining School approved a field day for students to help construct the giant letter. The M’s design, based on the monogram of the Wisconsin Mining School, was created on the mound with an estimated 400 tons of limestone put in place by students working with picks, crowbars, and wheelbarrows. The project was completed in the fall of 1937.

That first year, the M was lit up as part of UW–Platteville’s homecoming festivities, with a torch traveling 4.6 miles in an Olympic-style relay from the university to the M. That tradition continues; every UW–Platteville homecoming celebration culminates with the Saturday evening lighting of the M using more than 200 coffee cans filled with kerosene. The M is maintained by VECTOR, a student organization consisting of representatives of organizations within the College of Engineering, Mathematics and Sciences.

UW–Platteville’s homecoming celebration is one of the M’s shining moments, but it’s not the landmark’s only claim to fame. The M has attracted national attention over the years for a variety of unique reasons. It was featured in the May 23, 1949, edition of Life magazine. It also appeared on MTV in 1987, when 650 students gathered to complete the music television station’s logo on the mound. Approximately 250 people dressed in black and formed Mickey’s ears on the M for a picture that was instrumental in Platteville’s successful bid to host Disney’s Mickey’s Hometown Parade in 1998.

However, the M is most wellknown for its connection to southwest Wisconsin, much of which was built on mining. Lead ore was the first metal ore mined in Wisconsin, and the southwest portion of the state once had lots of it. According to the Wisconsin Historical Society, more than 4,000 miners worked in southwest Wisconsin in the early 19th century, producing 13 million pounds of lead a year. The Wisconsin Mining School, later called the Wisconsin Institute of Technology before combining with the Platteville State Teachers College to ultimately form UW–Platteville, was founded to train technicians for the numerous mining operations in the area. After lead mines began to decline in the mid 19th century, miners began extracting zinc ore.

Visitors can learn more about the area’s mining history by combining a stop at the M with a visit to the Mining Museum and Rollo Jamison Museum in Platteville. These side-by-side facilities offer exhibits on the area’s history, especially the history of lead and zinc mining. A visit to the museums includes an underground tour of the 1845 Bevans Lead Mine and a ride in a 1931 mine train.

If the historical significance of the M isn’t enough to lure you, visit the giant letter for the pure novelty of it. After all, only in Platteville can you climb the World’s Largest M.—Mary Erickson

The M is accessible year-round, although the steps are not groomed during winter months. The Mining Museum and Rollo Jamison Museum, located at 405 E. Main St., Platteville, are open daily 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. May through October, with self-guided galleries open November through April. Group tours are available year-round by appointment. For more information, call (608) 348-3301 or visit
www.mining.jamison.museum.

 

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©2013 Wisconsin Energy Cooperative News