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 1 of this feature.)
We've proven we are resilient. Serving our members is about making human connections, and we had to expand how we defined that connection.
Utilizing virtual meeting platforms and helping members without being able to meet face-to-face were some of the most immediate challenges to overcome. (Our lobby is now open by appointment.) We also saw an uptick in members utilizing online bill pay and our website to connect with the co-op.
We will resume in-person events once it is safe to do so, but we discovered our members like changing things up a bit with a virtual event. Our directors and employees consider virtual meeting platforms efficient ways to conduct meetings.
We also have the tools in place to support our employees if they need to work from home. Working from home isn't always ideal or easy, but our team made it work.
I am proud of the way our employees stepped up and adjusted to serve our members and keep our operations projects on schedule so we could safely keep the lights on.
When preparing for disaster or general safety planning, we at Northcentral attempt to anticipate the “event that we never saw coming." It's a good exercise to think about the broad possibilities that we need to be prepared for.
COVID-19 was the event we never saw coming. Several years ago, our awareness was raised by the potential for an outbreak of avian flu. Scenarios and remedies were discussed, but nothing materialized.
COVID-19 caught us flat-footed and put us on our heels almost overnight. Even though we appear to see a light at the end of the tunnel and an increased ability to manage the virus, this was a teachable time for our co-op.
The future will see us maintain a greater awareness of infectious disease. Distancing, masking and washing of hands will be with us to some degree indefinitely. Our ability to operate with offices closed and working remotely will be constantly assessed. Staffing in the event of another outbreak will have to be considered. We'll have to repeatedly remind ourselves of those core fundamentals that we must be able to perform to keep the essential services we provide available.
The response to COVID-19 will need to be included and remain in all of our co-ops' emergency response and safety plans. Its effect on us must be constantly evaluated and rehearsed. Our priorities must be keeping our employees healthy and keeping the power on. To assure this, we'll have to prioritize maintaining our facilities in a way that keeps others healthy as well. The conduct of others will have a keen effect on our ongoing health.
Anticipating and planning on those experiences we have never experienced before must be a major part of our playbooks as we move forward.
NorVal Electric Cooperative serves 1,900 members throughout northeastern Montana. Our membership is primarily composed of farmers and ranchers. This unique subsection of the American populace has served in this vocational capacity for generations, some reaching back three or four generations.
Foremost, the economic impact of the pandemic has been apparent in decreased sales of large commercial and three-phase oil rate schedules. With fewer Americans traveling, the oil industry took a huge hit and discontinued or slowed their pumping production. Grain elevators were not in operation due to pandemic-level staffing. These sales sectors are essential to the financial framework of our co-op.
Additionally, with the majority of our members in the agriculture industry, their bottom line has been affected. Farmers and ranchers are paid annually when they sell their crops or cattle. Our accounts receivable department has been working directly with those hit the hardest, and we are proud of the work we are doing to assist them in this uncertain time.
Our board of directors has been reviewing the data to assess the situation and come up with the best solution to keep the co-op financially solvent while ensuring the least impact to our already struggling membership. We anticipate a slow recovery in the oil and commercial sectors but are anxious to see the light at the end of the tunnel.
At Cedar-Knox Public Power District, our board and employees take great pride in our customer service. The COVID-19 pandemic created challenges in communications across our organization that we had to address to continue that stellar service. While our employees did an excellent job learning to quickly adapt in finding alternative ways to communicate in areas of safety, operations and customer relations, we needed to assess a long-term solution.
These long-term challenges from COVID-19 only enhanced our strategic planning decision to move forward with new technology to help solve these areas of concern. We have taken this as an opportunity to advance with tablets to our fleet to help in all areas of our communications. This advancement in technology will provide a multitude of benefits to all areas of our business.
We see a need for enhanced communication not only for internal improvement but also as a future way to engage directly with consumers. Implementing software and applications to our fleet will provide that efficient link to complement our service that we look at as a fundamental piece of our daily operations. This is essential to continue our great customer service to the district.
Times of conflict and change serve as a catalyst to reveal the heart of an organization. In some ways, the last year has not been an easy one for the LPEA team. We miss our face-to-face interactions with colleagues, after-hours social gatherings, and in-person meetings with our members. But the last year has also been one of the most innovative, transformative and boundary-breaking in our co-op's 82-year history.
Internally, we've re-evaluated our processes and systems to dramatically increase flexibility. We now support more flexible work schedules, allow employees to work from home and have digitized our workflows. Most notably, our project management has undergone a digital transformation, improving efficiency and cost savings along the way.
Externally, our website is also in mid-transformation. When complete, members will be able to interact with us online (if they prefer) on everything from new service requests to rebates to energy assessments. We've hosted multiple virtual town halls to stay connected with our members, and our board and committee meetings are all livestreamed on Zoom and recorded for future viewing.
These evolutions will remain with us post-pandemic and will result in a better quality of service for our members, cost savings and more flexibility and job satisfaction for our employees.
Over Minnkota's 81-year history, we've faced many challenges, but none quite like the COVID-19 pandemic. Our employees have learned to work and communicate in new ways to ensure we continue to deliver reliable energy to our members. While many hardships have been experienced over the last year, our hope is that societal changes can help revitalize rural America and build it back stronger.
With remote work becoming more common, many people are seeking to move to less crowded and less expensive areas. Families can enjoy the lifestyle of a rural community and the outdoors while still having access to most of the conveniences of a big city. And the divide continues to narrow with advancements in virtual meeting platforms, telehealth and other online tools.
Electric co-ops have an essential role to play in this transition. In addition to reliable electricity, we can help generate enthusiasm, drive economic development and support the advancement of local broadband initiatives.
As co-ops, we've been committed to our local communities since Day 1. It's in our DNA. As the world continues to go through this transformational period, I believe our role as a community builder will continue to grow.
Lyon-Lincoln Electric Cooperative has been fortunate over the last year in that it has been able to operate without a lot of changes due to the COVID-19 pandemic. We have added hand sanitizer stations, plexiglass, shut the doors to the public, and introduced other safety measures to help stop/slow the spread of the virus and provide a safe working environment for our employees.
In our daily work, we have moved toward technology options that allow our employees to work from home when necessary and continue interactions with our member-owners. We looked into what changes we would need to make to our phone system and computer system that would allow employees to work from home during the pandemic. We found out that we were able to transfer calls from our current phone system to someone working from home as long as a dynamic extension was set up in the phone.
We worked with our power supplier, East River Electric, and their IT department to set up two-part authentication to allow our employees access to their desktop clients. We believe that these changes will allow us to continue to meet the needs of our member-owners well into the future.
The lasting change at Sussex Rural Electric Cooperative (and probably many other businesses) that resulted from the COVID-19 pandemic is that we can function remotely. By remote, I mean that all of our business office employees, aside from our line/operations departments, can work from home or any other location provided they have an internet connection.
We functioned this way for over six months, handling all customer service, billing, accounting, IT and general corporate functions without our office being occupied. By doing so, our employees remained safe and healthy. That, in turn, kept everyone working productively, and the co-op simply kept doing what we always do—we kept the lights on for our members.
As a result, our employees now have much better flexibility during bad weather, personal illness and other reasons that might keep them from coming to the office. Working remotely increases their personal safety and, in turn, the safety of their fellow employees. It has also been well-received by our employees, who remain very loyal and have expressed their appreciation that we were able to keep everyone working and can now offer them a new flexibility.
We can do probably 99% of our business interactions with our members remotely as well. We always had pretty much all business functions available to our members over the internet or phone, but when we closed our office to the public, it forced members toward using our services that way. Now, if we ever do open to the public (we're still currently closed), I suspect in-person traffic will be practically nonexistent.