One of Superior’s oldest businesses remains as relevant today as it was when it was formed more than 130 years ago.
Superior Water, Light & Power was incorporated Sept. 28, 1889, from a merger of four existing utilities — Superior Waterworks Company, Superior Light & Fuel Company, Superior-Duluth Electric Company and Superior Arclight & Power, according to the Superior-Douglas County Chamber of Commerce and the Douglas County Historical Society.
In the years since, it’s kept its momentum by changing with the times and making strong connections, said Rob Sandstrom, the utility's president. The organization is focused on safety, integrity, environmental stewardship, community engagement, employee growth and customer excellence.
“A lot of what you’ve seen us do in the last five years at Superior Water Light & Power has been just that, listening to the voice of our customer and taking advantage of technology,” he said
The utility company built its original water treatment plant in 1897, Sandstrom said, pulling in Lake Superior water from Minnesota Point through a flexible pipe that was installed in 1893.
“We started reconstructing and built our new water plant in 1986,” Sandstrom said, and it was commissioned by the time the company celebrated its 100-year anniversary in 1989.
Updates have continued over the years.
The water line under the bay and horizontal infrastructure was upgraded in the 2000s. A 1.5 million gallon water tower was constructed in Superior’s South End neighborhood in 2008, and a 1.5 million gallon reservoir was built on the city’s east side two years later to replace underground facilities that dated back to 1889 and 1912.
Updating old pipes and valves has been an ongoing task.
“We have some water valves that date back to the 1890s that are still in service,” Sandstrom said. “It’s amazing how long some of that technology lasts.”
The company is replacing them with polyethylene pipes, which have an estimated 300-year lifespan and will help curb water loss. It’s hard to pinpoint the areas with the oldest pipes, Sandstrom said, as they’re spread throughout the city. The company has a 30-year water plan to address aging infrastructure.
The utility generated its own power for nearly 100 years.
“We stopped generating at the Winslow Station around 1981,” Sandstrom said.
Since then, the business has been a wholesale power customer of Minnesota Power.
That could change soon, Sandstrom said. The company has proposed to build a 470 kilowatt hour solar energy array on a 2.5 acre parcel at 2828 Hammond Ave. near Heritage Park. It is currently undergoing regulatory review by the Public Service Commission of Wisconsin.
“That would be the first generation we’ve had back within our Superior Water, Light & Power fleet since Winslow closed in 1981,” Sandstrom said.
If approved, the solar garden could be built in about a year. Construction would start once enough customers have subscribed to the solar energy project.
“A lot of this is just responding to what customers are asking for,” Sandstrom said.
Reliable power is a company focus, as well. In addition to adding and improving electric substations, Superior Water, Light & Power has installed a handful of resettable fuses at areas that tend to experience more temporary outages. The technology resets the fuse on its own, Sandstrom said, getting customers back in service sooner.
The utility started providing natural gas service in 1959 to locations in the city of Superior. Service was expanded in 1993 to the Brule, Poplar, Lake Nebagamon and Lake Minnesuing areas of Douglas County. Parkland and Solon Springs were added in 1994.
Although the natural gas infrastructure is much newer than the water system, those pipes are also being upgraded to polyethylene, Sandstrom said.
The Superior business has been a wholly-owned subsidiary of ALLETE-Minnesota Power since 1943, a move that allowed Superior Water, Light & Power to utilize Minnesota Power’s IT, systems operations and human resources departments. The utility employs about 80 people and serves roughly 15,000 electric customers, 12,500 natural gas customers and 10,000 water customers.
One of the utility’s newest technological upgrades, advanced meters, touches all of them. The project started in 2016 and was expected to finish at the end of 2020, Sandstrom said.
But the COVID-19 pandemic has slowed the project. Installation of new water meters, in particular, have been held up because those are inside homes, Sandstrom said.
The meters offer more accurate readings, two-way communication to allow for remote readings and detailed data customers can use to track daily water and power usage. Alarms can even be set on the electric side and paired with the outage system.
“We get a notification right away when one of those meters goes out of power,” Sandstrom said.
A few times, he said, a line worker has been out restoring power to a customer before they’ve gotten up and realized the power was out.
“That’s the real value of the technology that we have there,” Sandstrom said.
Through the customer portal and app, people can dial in and check their own data. Sandstrom said some customers have discovered toilet leaks through the program; others have set up alarms on vacation to ensure their house is heated. Customers can visit the website or call Superior Water, Light & Power at 715-394-2200 for information and help setting that up.