The new president/CEO of East Central Energy has strong local roots – and you could say he has been involved with the local energy cooperative since day one.
“I was born in the Cambridge Hospital powered by ECE power,” said Justin Jahnz. “I’ve lived here my whole life. I care about the people that we serve, and want to bring value to their lives.”
Jahnz is currently ECE manager of energy services and strategic projects. He will be just the fifth president/CEO in ECE’s 84 years of existence.
Jahnz has been with ECE for 12 years, but was an electrician in the metro area for the decade before that. He said he enjoyed that experience and learning the trade; however, like many in this area, he was commuting back and forth between that job and his hometown of Pine City, where he and his wife, Kris, were raising their children.
He was hired on as an electrician and quickly grew to appreciate what it meant to have a career with a member-owned company like ECE.
“Electric cooperatives are such a great place to work,” Jahnz said. “We take our mission of serving our members seriously, and employees here are engaged and committed to that service.”
When his manager retired, Jahnz applied for that position, and then continued to take on further roles of responsibility within the organization. He has served on planning teams for ECE’s power supplier, Great River Energy, as well as the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association.
He went back to school to get his Master of Arts in strategic leadership from Bethel University.
“Leadership and management are two distinctly different functions within an organization,” Jahnz explained. “Understanding how to engage people, how to motivate people, how to inspire people is something that I’ve really wanted to achieve.
He said he’s eager to help ECE position itself to take on future challenges.
“We’re facing a lot of changes,” he said. “East Central Energy serves some of the poorest communities in the state, so we have a fiscal responsibility to make sure that we’re providing the lowest-cost service possible. We also have a very widespread network ... and so, in order to serve the people we have to install a lot more infrastructure to make that happen. So, trying to meet some of those societal needs, such as renewables and cleaner energy while also being cost-effective is going to be a big challenge. We’re going to use a lot of technologies to do that in the coming years.”
In his career at ECE, Jahnz has spent a good deal of time looking into those new innovations and developments.
“Great River Energy is investing in a project down in Cambridge that involves battery storage technology,” he said. “That’s really going to set the course. While renewable energy is great, it’s a little bit intermittent. The sun doesn’t shine all day, the wind doesn’t blow all the time. So having the ability to store that energy is really going to be a linchpin for mass adoption of renewable energy.
“There was some fear early on that renewable energy would replace utilities, but the reality is that we’ll always have a need for things to be produced at scale because it can be done in a more affordable way,” he added. “That’s why cooperatives will always be relevant. As we continue along we’re going to see more of that, just with different fuel sources.”
Jahnz will begin his new duties in July and will fully transition into his new role when current President/CEO Steve Shurts retires in August.
“Steve has been here for 10 years, and he has been just an amazing servant-leader, someone who has been committed to this organization and has brought a wealth of knowledge,” Jahnz said. “He’s done a fantastic job of developing ... the culture of the employees in general. He should be commended for the service that he has given.”
He and Kris now have four children (Grace, 16; Isaac, 15; Elijah, 11; and Samuel, 3) and have been married for 17 years. They still live in Pine City. Jahnz is a captain in the Pine City Fire Department and has been volunteering as a coach for the Pine City Youth Hockey Association for nearly 10 years.
He said he is proud to have this chance to make a difference in the future of ECE and in the lives of its members.
“Being from the area, I think, gives me a lot of opportunity to understand where people are coming from,” he said. “The responsibility of serving a cooperative like this is a great opportunity... that I intend to treat with a lot of humility. It gives me an opportunity, hopefully, to build that level of trust that we need, so that people understand that this organization truly is member-owned and here to serve them. The employees that work here care about the people that we serve.
“I want people to understand that we’re not a big utility that’s looking to maximize profits,” Jahnz said. “We are truly looking to serve the communities that we live in.”