When the COVID-19 pandemic drove millions of Americans from their offices, electric cooperatives found ways to expand and adapt technology to step-up remote operations.

“The crisis fast-tracked the remote way of life, and electric cooperatives and their staff are no exceptions,” said Paul Breakman, NRECA’s vice president for cooperative business solutions.

While co-ops have strong track records of preparing for and responding to all kinds of emergencies affecting service and reliability, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought new challenges.

“We are dealing with both a health and economic crisis that has dealt a blow to the entire power industry and the people who support it,” said Breakman.

When many co-ops began planning for sustained operations with a dispersed staff working from laptops, tablets and personal phones, they contacted the service and technology cooperatives they’ve long depended on for help.

Expanding Remote Operations

NISC and SEDC have decades of experience supporting electric and telecommunications cooperatives. Besides developing and marketing software designed to perform essential support services, they also offer consulting services to help co-ops incorporate technical solutions into their operations.

“All utilities and telecoms are experiencing difficult times because of COVID-19,” said Reginal Rudolph, general manager and CEO of San Isabel Electric Association in Pueblo West, Colorado. “We had to quickly procure the necessary hardware for our employees to work from home.”

But with unusually heavy use of its virtual private network, some co-op employees faced limited internet bandwidth or no home access to high-speed internet service. San Isabel has been using SmartHub and other services provided by NISC to help meet member needs.

San Isabel and other co-ops have used NISC’s Messenger solution to inform members of changes in billing and service policies during the COVID-19 stand down, said Dan Wilbanks, president and CEO of Lake St. Louis, Missouri-based NISC.

“SmartHub awareness campaigns are popping up throughout our nationwide membership as co-ops seek to engage their member-consumers with options for paying their bills online and provide enhanced data and analytics so consumers can track their energy use” said Wilbanks.

“We have a SmartHub awareness toolkit available for our membership, and we also developed a special COVID-19-focused video for co-ops’ use to share across social media,” he said, adding that consumers are more interested than ever in tracking their energy use. “This is an ever-evolving situation, and through it all, we’re working to be agile and resilient so we can continue to serve our members,”

Maintaining Strong Connections

SEDC staff has reached out to member cooperatives with advice and recommendations on scaling up work-from-home capabilities and providing the support essential to maintaining productivity.

“We produced a free Coronavirus Preparedness course available through our learning management system,” said RB Sloan, president and CEO of Atlanta-based SEDC. “Because the technology already existed, we were able to focus on facilitating their ability to communicate with their employees and members.”

Since shelter-in-place policies began, innovation took center stage as SEDC developed and refined tools, including software suites, mobile apps, and member services portal solutions. Tested under “real world” conditions, these tools are expected to exceed co-ops’ needs when pandemic concerns subside.

“This crisis spotlights that our new enterprise software suite will be able to keep up with what is required to transition from the traditional face-to-face interaction with customers,” Sloan said.

A Flexible Future

Co-ops and many other businesses are expected to continue limiting nonessential business travel.

At the same time, more employees are becoming accustomed to working from home. The COVID-19 pandemic may mark a tipping point, spurring blended schedules of onsite and remote work periods, and an overall reduction of centralized operations.

"Challenging situations breed innovation,” said NISC’s Wilbanks. “While we are already ahead of the connectivity curve, this time will allow us to consider other innovative solutions to streamline our services, gain efficiencies and deliver on superior service to our members."

Many of the challenges confronted as part of the pandemic response are tied to overall co-op and industry concerns about service reliability, cybersecurity and maintaining high confidence in critical infrastructure.

“There are a number of great stories regarding how America’s electric cooperatives have worked with their consumer-members and in their communities to lessen the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic where they could,” said Jim Spiers, NRECA’s senior vice president for business and technology strategies. “The cooperatives’ efforts were supported and enabled by the stellar service each of those companies provides to their member cooperatives.”

See NRECA’s coronavirus resources for co-ops, including guidance on business continuity planning and communication as well as event schedule changes.