The COVID-19 pandemic has caused unprecedented turmoil for electric cooperatives throughout the nation. Lobbies once filled with consumer-members have been shuttered, many employees have had to work from home for their safety, and the struggling economy has caused financial distress.
Amid it all, co-ops have taken countless, creative steps to ease the pain for residential members suffering job losses and commercial/industrial members hit hard by declines in tourism, slumping demand for oil and gas, and breakdowns in the agricultural supply chain.
The pandemic has also proven the resiliency of co-ops, which have served their members in innovative ways while continuing to keep the lights on.
Co-op leaders say the experience has shown them the value of being flexible about work-from-home arrangements and shown them the efficiencies that can come from conducting virtual meetings and enabling members to better connect with them online. As one CEO put it, the pandemic taught him to have “a greater appreciation and empathy for our employees' concerns and fears."
We reached out to co-op CEOs in advance of the 2021 PowerXchange and TechAdvantage Experience to ask them what they see as the lasting impact of the pandemic on their co-op or within the electric sector. (For more CEO responses, view part 2 of this feature.)
The pandemic has taught us we can work differently. It leveled the playing field and forced every industry to rethink how they operate.
I see us continuing to have virtual meetings and conferences, allowing people to be more productive and travel less. Our ability to connect remotely with community leaders, legislators, colleagues and vendors has opened up the door for additional dialogue and communication. In some ways, the pandemic created even more connections with others as everyone adjusted together.
The pandemic has also shown us we can have more flexibility in work arrangements, which might allow us to recruit new co-op employees with diversified backgrounds, lead to better employee engagement and encourage more flexibility.
As we have become accustomed to doing work remotely and ensuring we have the technology in place, it will allow us to better serve our members knowing that we can provide the same great service without having to be face-to-face.
Paulding Putnam Electric Cooperative prides itself on family values, consistently putting family first when dealing with employees and members. The pandemic has taught me to refocus on what “family first" really means.
When we were told to “shelter in place" last March, the co-op began a work-from-home schedule with a minimal, daily rotating workforce. Only employees scheduled to work were allowed in the building. I was the only exception, coming in each morning to review the situation and check on employees and workflow. I think we did a good job addressing member concerns and providing them account access by phone, internet and NISC's SmartHub application.
The problem, and what I underestimated at the time, was the distress and anxiety our employees were experiencing at the onset of the pandemic. In a follow-up survey to employees, I learned just how afraid they were for their families, friends and co-workers. Our employees did not think I understood and addressed their fears well.
The biggest change and opportunity for me going forward is not the business side of operations; it is the human side. Having a greater appreciation and empathy for our employees' concerns and fears will ensure we truly are focused on “family first."
At the onset of the pandemic, Fall River prepared for the worst, tightening our financial belts and putting into action a business continuation plan that allowed staff to easily continue to work either remotely or dispatched in small crews. We found operating in a semi-virtual world doable. Member businesses were impacted, and we saw an immediate reduction in energy sales by our commercial members.
However, with a new openness to remote work nationwide, the co-op experienced an influx of consumers using recreational cabins and summer homes as a new base of operations for their remote work. Members who now have the option to work from anywhere chose to migrate to their vacation homes. Fall River's service area is in the heart of year-round recreation near Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks, hiking, camping, hunting, world-renowned fishing and ski resorts.
The co-op's sales to our residential members surpassed the decrease in sales we saw from our commercial members. Working remotely has resulted in a positive impact to Fall River and opens the doors to new opportunities for the co-op.
Parkland Light & Water, like many businesses, had to make changes in various areas as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Many of these changes are useful and have enhanced our company as a whole.
We have increased our cybersecurity. With cyberattacks on the rise during the pandemic, this was necessary. Stricter IT security has allowed the option for administrative staff to work remotely from home. This option was not available prior to the pandemic and it will remain a temporary option post-pandemic in certain situations.
Zoom meetings have taken the place of in-person meetings and have allowed management and employees to conveniently attend essential meetings and take part in virtual courses while adhering to social-distancing standards. Additionally, electronic meetings have been beneficial with respect to travel time and cost.
We have constructed partition walls around indoor work areas for the protection of our administrative staff, which we plan to keep in place indefinitely. Exaggerated disinfection techniques have been implemented and will be a permanent undertaking and considered the new norm.
The pandemic forced us to make changes, but these lasting modifications in the end have been beneficial to our company and provide additional safeguards to our members and employees.
One lasting change resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic involves our load, in the forms of both load growth opportunities and the possibility of permanent load decline. Because most of the nearly 300,000 consumer-members that our members serve are residential, we have seen increased residential load associated with folks working or learning from home.
However, because we also serve the agribusiness sector, the oil and gas industry, and a multitude of small businesses, the load decline—and other related impacts like job losses and reduced tax base—for these consumers could remain indefinitely or take years to recover.
A key, significant opportunity for us resulting from the pandemic, if approved by Congress, involves the ability to refinance Rural Utilities Service debt. We currently have $84.8 million in Federal Financing Bank loans, so if we are able to reprice these loans without penalty, we estimate a savings of about $20 million-$25 million. That savings can be directly passed along to our members and the rural Kansans they serve.
Another lasting change involves enhancing our members' experience. By incorporating technology, offering flexible work options and encouraging innovation, we have been able to efficiently and safely serve our members, providing them with the best experience possible during these unprecedented times.
This has been a very strange year—almost like a bad dream. If I could push a button and have it all go away, I would! But I can't. So now we have to make the best of a bad situation. We must learn and get better.
In spite of social distance and work-from-home challenges, in many ways we are now better connected and more efficient than ever. Before COVID-19, we would have many informal, casual meetings. Now we have to plan our meetings. This actually has improved communications and teamwork.
Before COVID-19, we never used Zoom (or similar technologies). We depended on “planes, trains and automobiles!" Now we are becoming highly adept at innovative ways to communicate and connect. We Zoom. We text. We use conference bridges. We are finding new and better ways to function.
Will things ever get back to “normal"? I think not. I believe the pandemic has set the stage for a new normal. It seems that we are stepping into a different dimension. We can only begin to imagine the changes and efficiencies that are coming. I believe we can look forward to a bright future.
The COVID-19 pandemic experience has strengthened our ability to operate remotely and with a higher degree of flexibility as well as given us a template for responding well to future disruptive events.
We created a pandemic response plan, which we have updated monthly. This plan sets internal expectations and serves as our guide for how we will safely work and serve our members well. The response plan also addresses member assistance—suspending disconnections, expanding payment arrangements, moving past-due amounts to debt management, and connecting them with resources.
Although we have reported to the office except when ill or quarantined, we are better equipped now to work remotely. The ability to assist members from home enables us to back up our dispatchers after-hours and provide better service.
Our co-op and broadband subsidiary employees have become more adept at utilizing technology for project collaboration, virtual meetings and job interviews. These save valuable time and produce good results. Because our members also have needed to meet, work and educate virtually, we have added more contractors and employees to expedite our fiber-to-the-home buildout and deliver on this essential service as quickly as possible.
Finally, to help our members and communities, we partnered with Tennessee Valley Authority and CoBank to leverage $75,000 in energy and nutrition grants to area food pantries and community action agencies. Our employees also donated more than 2,000 pounds of food to local food banks.
We have always tried to treat our members as owners and support our communities, but the pandemic has heightened our awareness and commitment.
The pandemic will have a long-lasting impact on many aspects of our industry. Co-ops are effective at dealing with changing environments, and one reason for that is the level of sharing that exists. A primary opportunity coming out of the pandemic will be the expanded ability to share information and train people effectively at a lower cost than before.
Many of the virtual platforms have grown and continue to grow in their effectiveness, allowing training to reach the end user at a much lower cost and in a more efficient manner. This is not limited to external trainings and seminars; it carries over to the ability to gather internal personnel who are normally separated by distance, where a one-hour meeting may not be feasible to collaborate on a project to the benefit of the co-op, its members and the community. A virtual setup allows a diverse level of input on solving problems across organizations.
This approach will open more avenues for involvement from our members as well. At the end of the day, nothing replaces that ability to interact directly with one another, but what we have learned over the past year will pay dividends well into the future.