As electric cooperatives, one of our most important missions is meeting the expectations of our members. Of course, that mission has morphed from the early days of providing first-time electric service to today's multi-faceted offerings. In advance of this year's annual meeting—where member engagement is one of three principal topics—we asked co-op CEOs what expectations they are hearing from their members, and how their co-ops are evolving to meet those expectations.

The answers from 18 leaders included implementing faster, real-time communication, offering broadband service, creating time-of-use rates and instituting energy-efficiency and renewable energy programs. And, of course, CEOs said their members still expect affordable, reliable service along with innovation.

To begin this two-part series, here's how nine leaders view their members' priorities. (Check out Part 2 of this feature for the remaining perspectives.)

Coast Electric Power Association has conducted an annual membership survey since the 1990s. Through our research we have learned that overall satisfaction is primarily driven by five factors: electric cost, electric service, social responsibility, employees and payments/bills.

In 2010, we undertook a project to focus on the most important of these issues, electric cost. Members wanted reasonable rates, and they wanted the co-op to take actions to keep rates as low as possible—to help them be more efficient in electric use and for us to demonstrate that we have their best interests at heart. Our solution was a residential time-of-use rate.

Adoption of the new rate option was slow over the first couple of years. We made it a priority for our member service representatives to take time to explain the benefits of the rate. Soon, word-of-mouth started moving among the membership about how much money members were saving.

We now have over 22,000 members voluntarily participating in the time-of-use rate, or about 30% of our residential meters. Over that time, our American Customer Satisfaction Index has improved from 83 to 89. We plan to continue this innovative rate and focus on additional rate options in 2020 and beyond, including a three-part rate.

At Talquin Electric, our most prominent member expectations concern increased convenience of interactions with the co-op and receiving more information from the co-op.

As digital platforms have developed and become easier to access on mobile devices, our members want to see the co-op offer convenient access to services via easy-to-use digital platforms rather than personally visiting an office or calling on the phone.

Some of these services include making payments, reporting outages, receiving notifications related to interruptions of service and precautionary boil water notices (Talquin also provides water and wastewater service), and applying for a new service online. Talquin is responding to these expectations with the development of a custom mobile app and upgraded website.

Also, with the proliferation of information via the internet and social media platforms, our members want easier and quicker access to information. Members increasingly want more information about usage data, such as daily and hourly usage; outage causes and estimated restoration times; preparation prior to major events; and system status during major event restoration.

Talquin is not only responding to these expectations with the development of a mobile app and upgraded website, but we have also developed robust communications via social media, such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

The integration of technology into our everyday lives has changed the expectations of our members. They are asking for more information, more control and more responsiveness than ever before. We are leveraging technology to meet those expectations.

By deploying digital meters, members can access apps allowing them to monitor their hourly electricity use and pre-pay for energy with no deposits or fees. Meter data management software lets us proactively alert members with high bills and provide solutions. We even livestream board meetings to give members access to their co-op's governance.

As our service territory rapidly grows with the addition of 4,000 meters each year, we must also find innovative ways to connect with our communities. Our outreach efforts encompass more than 100 community events yearly, ranging from awarding $14,000 in teacher grants to hosting senior citizen bingo. We are also leaders in outreach to our fast-growing limited-English-speaking population.

As proud as I am of our employees' commitment to community, I always ask members, "How can we serve you better?" It would be easy to lose your co-op's identity with such fast-paced growth, but our members expect us to remain rooted in what matters—each other.

North Arkansas Electric Cooperative's formation of our fiber-to-the-home subsidiary, "NEXT, Powered by NAEC," best represents how we have responded to recent member feedback.

As we build the fiber-optic network throughout our territory, members are able to take advantage of the economic and educational benefits that access to high-speed internet brings.

NAEC realizes that members' baseline expectation remains reliable, affordable electricity. The fiber-optic network we have linking our substations—and eventually will have to homes and businesses—will help us meet this expectation by modernizing our electric grid.

A communications infrastructure will allow us connectivity to every electrical device in the field, which will help reduce outages and decrease response times. It also will allow us to automate outage detection, which will reduce the need for outage predictions. Fiber connectivity also will facilitate automatic switching in high-profile locations from different sources to isolate faults and minimize affected members. We now are engineering an automated switching scheme for a populated commercial area.

In addition, the new infrastructure will enhance our conservation voltage reduction and load management programs. They reduce our wholesale power costs and save members money. NAEC also will use the fiber-optic network to improve our automated meter reading infrastructure.

Our members expect us to give them honest and accurate information. Ensuring that we earn and keep our members' trust is paramount to our success as a member-owned rural electric co-op. Media reminds us daily about what happens to organizations that lose the trust and respect of customers or member-owners. Maintaining this high level of member trust is one of the most important jobs we have at our co-ops.

When we get questions from our members on various topics, such as energy efficiency, solar panels, demand charges, wind turbine generation and AMI metering, it is expected that we provide straightforward answers. Giving our members correct information, or simply telling them we don't know but will research the answers, ensures that our members continue to value our advice and trust our information. It is also important to provide members with other sources of unbiased information, especially when discussing issues such as meter safety and renewable energy resources.

We've spent over 80 years earning the trust of our members. Our employees are respected and well-known in the communities we serve; therefore, we have a responsibility to ensure we hire not only highly skilled individuals but employees who model the cooperative principles.

At Kootenai Electric Cooperative, our members, like most electric consumers, expect reliable power. They also expect timely communications from us about the status of any outages that do occur. To meet these expectations and deliver on our mission, we continually review our processes as well as new and emerging technologies.

For example, this year we are upgrading our SCADA (supervisory control and data acquisition) system, which will allow our co-op to remotely monitor our system and respond more efficiently to potential problems before they happen. It will also allow us to improve supervision of our demand voltage reduction scheme, which in turn will help us manage our power supply costs. In the future, we expect to roll out FLISR (fault location, isolation, and service restoration), which means safer, more reliable electricity for our members.

Member expectations for timely outage communications are increasing. We see a need for communication across a variety of channels during outages, and to meet this challenge our co-op has established a cross-departmental team. Their goal is to improve communication internally, which means more effective communication with our members. To engage with our members during outages, we use a combination of email, text messaging, social media, photos, our app and our website outage map.

Our membership continues to expect better reliability from their co-op. Thirty years ago, we measured our SAIDI (system average interruption duration index) in hours. Today, it's in minutes, and it continues to get lower.

Service reliability is challenging when you are a co-op in North Dakota serving parts of seven counties, with most of your service area having a density of less than two meters per mile of line.

Innovation has helped us improve our SAIDI index. It started with a stronger, more redundant transmission system. Later, it was the implementation of a systemwide SCADA allowing for remote switching at every substation. Then we installed AMI, allowing two-way communications to every meter. We also use data from SCADA and AMI for our outage management system that has over 500,000 connectivity points. This data helps us predict where an outage is before rolling trucks.

Going forward, it's all about using innovation to help us manage this massive amount of data. Examples include a meter data management system and an equipment photo management system tying equipment photos to your mapping system.

I'm sure future innovations will continue to drive our SAIDI index lower.

High West Energy's first and most important goal will always be delivering reliable, affordable electricity to our members. It's what they expect and deserve. However, for High West to continue to grow and thrive, we must also work to fully understand our members' expectations.

Evolution is an ongoing process. About seven years ago, we realized we could provide our members with services not conveniently available in our communities. We added two organizations to the High West family of companies, High West Wiring (electrician services) and High West Digital Solutions (IT services and computer/mobile device repairs). These companies have earned a sterling reputation for customer service, and their expertise is outstanding. How do I know? These same employees handle our IT and electrician needs every day.

More recently, we modernized our grid with an advanced metering system that helps us detect and repair outages more quickly and efficiently.

On the horizon, High West is working to deliver:

  • A voluntary demand-response technology program.
  • Electric vehicle charging stations.
  • A convenient pre-paid metering option.

We are committed to learning about and understanding new trends in the industry so we can offer new ideas and increased choices to our members. More importantly, we also have open doors and open ears to the members. Opening the lines of communication is essential for responsible and responsive evolution.

The challenge of growing our rural communities is an issue we often hear about, and we have already acted to support our six G&Ts and 51 distribution co-ops in meeting this challenge.

Power4Progress, Associated Electric's economic development program, provides resources for our system, and we have been able to make concrete progress toward equipping our communities to compete for businesses and jobs in today's growing economy. Financing, training, tools, project support and technology are key points of focus in a comprehensive Power4Progress portfolio. It's designed to cut through the clutter by providing actionable avenues for member systems to retain businesses, identify new opportunities and be ready to pursue them.

One key component of the program helps member systems conduct a professional load growth study to provide foundational data needed for member systems to move economic development efforts forward with their community partners. Rebates for electric vehicles and charging stations were of interest to many members and now are a reality. The need for electric vehicle education resulted in the implementation of customized ChooseEV websites for member systems.

Growing our rural communities will take time and persistence; by listening to our distribution co-ops and G&Ts and implementing Power4Progress, Associated and its member-owners are driving toward a bright future.