The hard-charging days of lighting up the Lowcountry

dlauderdale@islandpacket.comDecember 31, 2011 

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Bob Bishop has left the building.

Let's hope he didn't turn off the light.

For 38 years, Bishop has been trying to keep the lights on, and it hasn't been easy.

He's been one of the leaders in a pretty anonymous group that has tried to meet explosive demand for electricity in southern Beaufort County.

On Tuesday, Bishop will officially retire as engineering services manager for Palmetto Electric Cooperative, though his last day in the office was Thursday.

When he reported to work in a small red brick building on Mathews Drive, which in 1973 was in the boondocks of Hilton Head Island, Palmetto Electric served 8,926 customers, had 1,100 miles of line, and the average monthly kilowatt-hour usage was 967.

Today, Bishop walks out of the cooperative's office at New River, across the roaring U.S. 278 from Sun City Hilton Head. Its power control center looks like something from NASA, bunkered within the building to survive if all else is blown away. And the utility serves 65,252 customers, has 3,199 miles of line, and the average monthly kilowatt-hour usage is 2,279.

"He's helped everyone here," system engineer Tim Hutchinson said of Bishop. "Indirectly, whether people know it or not, he's touched them, too."

ON THE EDGE

Palmetto Electric Cooperative -- customer-owned and run by a board elected by the customers -- was formed in 1940 because investor-owned utilities wouldn't serve this rural, poor section of the Lowcountry. Now it serves Hampton and Jasper counties, which remain largely rural, and portions of Beaufort County. In 1950, its lines to Hilton Head Island were electrified and all hell broke loose.

The first bridge to the island didn't come until 1956, but by the time Bishop unpacked his bags from his native Orangeburg, demand for power on Hilton Head was soaring.

"We needed to catch up with our buildings, purchasing, engineering, everything," he said last week. "We used to have trouble getting the materials in here fast enough to keep the crews in the field. It was full-bore back then."

Palmetto Electric CEO Tom Upshaw says it's been one of the fastest-growing cooperatives in the country. It's also a leader in density -- consumers per mile -- and power usage.

As in other local institutions, there could be friction between the traditional, slow, rural ways of the Lowcountry and the fast and seemingly reckless pace of Hilton Head. One mindset was reluctant to make big expenditures and move forward with technology. The other mindset was "lead, follow, or get out of the way."

Upshaw said the challenge has been to meet current demand while also planning and designing the system for the future. "You don't want to overspend, but at the same time you have to prepare today for what you will need years from now."

As Hilton Head boomed, it was demanding underground power lines, which was cutting-edge in the 1970s.

"I can't tell you how many serial numbers we put in the ground that started with a bunch of zeroes," Bishop said. "Once we got going, we were out there on the edge. We had to be."

SLOWING DOWN

Berl Davis, vice president for engineering and operations, says they have a lot more information today to help in planning and customer service.

"Now that we are remotely reading meters, we can get hourly data," said Davis, whose father, Archie Davis, worked for Palmetto Electric for more than 40 years.

Bishop said the system has a strong "backbone" in place now. Outages are infrequent, and shorter. And the pell-mell growth has slowed to a trickle. Three or four years ago, as Bluffton boomed, they had 25 outside contractors installing cable. Now it's just a couple. Upshaw said the work is moving in-house.

They have more trouble getting rights of way than they used to. Bishop said it took three years to get a new substation in Red Dam up and going.

He'll now be spending more time trying to find fish than rights of way. He and his wife, Gail, who worked in accounting for Sea Pines for 32 years, raised their two sons in the quiet, ungated Point Comfort neighborhood near Palmetto Bay Marina.

They recently bought a condominium on Lake Keowee, which Bob says is "16 miles from the stadium" at Clemson University, where he studied electrical engineering.

He looks at the gag gift on his desk -- a clock that for the past year has counted down the days, hours and minutes until retirement -- and says, "It's been wild."

But he also says, "A job like mine has been so fulfilling when you look back at what we were able to do to help our community grow and prosper."

Contact columnist David Lauderdale at twitter.com/ThatsLauderdale.

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Palmetto Electric Cooperative

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