INDIAN WELLS, Calif.—Key accounts make up a just tiny fraction of Pedernales Electric Cooperative’s more than 400,000 meters, but they have a substantial impact on the nation’s largest and fastest-growing co-op.

PEC, located outside Austin, Texas, has about 4,000 commercial and industrial members, of which only 60 are considered key accounts. But those 60 represent 10% of the co-op’s kilowatt-hour sales, generate 7% of its revenue and make up 7% of generation bill.

“If you look at the breadth of what they represent in kilowatt-hours, billed revenue and hourly demand, you will see why they’re so important to us,” said Dawn Southwell, PEC director of commercial, industrial and municipal relations, at a Jan. 30 general session at the 2024 NEXT Conference sponsored by Touchstone Energy® Cooperative.

Several conference speakers noted that while electric co-op loads are still dominated by residential members, an increase in new large industrial accounts like data centers is driving co-ops to re-examine their operations.

In Virginia, tax advantages, available land and other factors have spurred an explosion in data centers that are pushing Fredericksburg-based Rappahannock Electric Cooperative’s C&I accounts above its residential numbers.

“It’s uncharted territory for us,” REC Chief Strategy, Technology and Innovation Officer Peter Muhoro said. “Our energy profile is currently 60-40, residential versus commercial and industrial, but now it’s trending to be the reverse as we see more data centers locating in our service territory.”

As these more complex, energy-intensive loads come online, co-op energy advisers are ramping up efforts to engage key account members with a new “key accounts culture,” a holistic approach to attract and cultivate those relationships that involves the entire co-op and board and not just the key accounts team.

At Consolidated Cooperative, large power accounts have grown by more than 35% over the past five years. Last year, the north-central Ohio co-op launched its first annual key account networking events hosting “C-suite” executives, local officials and economic development experts. The meetings took place at three different locations in the co-op’s service area.

“The focus of the meeting is to have a space for our key accounts to connect to Consolidated, each other and government,” said Dan Boysel, community and government relations vice president at the Mount Gilead-based co-op. “The other objective is to get attendees to talk to each other, the co-op and officials they may not see very often.”

At the NEXT conference, PEC’s Southwell facilitated a panel discussion of energy managers at three PEC-served key accounts—a booming independent school district, a chemical engineering firm and an Austin suburb.

The managers told Southwell they want plenty of advance notice of power curtailments, higher prices and anything affecting reliability.

“First and foremost is reliability,” said Megan Weiland, purchasing director at Huber Engineered Materials. “And when I say reliability, we want our plants to be running all the time. And in the event that’s not possible, I want advance notice—a 15-minute phone call—to know what I need to manage my facility.”

Weiland also wants PEC to inform key accounts of regulatory changes and other industry developments looming on the horizon.

“Make me look smart,” she said. “I’m going to love you, and it’s going to help prepare my company for what’s coming. We rely on you to help us prepare for the next budgeting season.”

At the end of the day, regardless of a key account’s complexity and sophistication, co-ops still need to remember that core services—timely outage restoration, good communication and affordability—matter most.

“Ask your essential non-residential members what you can do to serve them effectively and efficiently,” said Scott Bialick, Touchstone Energy senior program manager of member engagement and strategic relationships. “When we provide excellent service to our key accounts, everyone in the community benefits.”