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 conclude this two-part series, here's how nine of the leaders view their members' priorities. (Check out last week's installment to see the rest of the responses.)
Webster Electric Cooperative has narrowed our mission to focus on what our members have told us is most important to them: keeping our rates as low as possible without sacrificing reliability. To do that, we are making better use of data.
We have data all around us, and many times that data is collected and stored, but not truly analyzed except for a few times a year. We are now actively looking at this data on a monthly basis to improve processes and ensure that we are using members' money efficiently.
This data can include outage information along with payroll information. One of our biggest yearly expenditures is in right-of-way clearing, and we are constantly analyzing and measuring the performance of our contract crews. This area can impact reliability more than just about any other issue.
The other top priority our members have asked us about is to share with them more real-time information. We have accomplished this goal by starting a Facebook page and assigning an employee to ensure we are providing timely information. We now have over 5,000 of our 17,000 members following us daily.
None of this would matter on a cost basis without the fine work of our G&Ts, Sho-Me Power and Associated Electric Cooperative Inc. Without their hard work to keep our cost per kilowatt-hour as low as possible, our rates would be much higher.
Our members have a varying array of expectations that can be grouped into two distinct areas: a more traditional set of expectations for a co-op that includes safety, cost, and reliability, and more recent expectations such as broadband access and renewables for distributed generation sources.
There are many different innovations necessary to meet our members' expectations. One common theme to meet any expectation is to develop a close and trusting relationship with our members.
A key to satisfying the traditional expectations is employing engaged, knowledgeable and loyal employees that implement technology in all areas of the co-op to work safely and gain efficiencies.
We have a pilot program in progress with a broadband provider that may result in a partnership agreement to work toward extending service throughout our territory.
Illinois will continue offering lucrative incentives for renewable energy that could benefit our members. We work with members interested in installing solar energy to help them maximize the economics of their installation. However, as a co-op, we also have the fiduciary duty to the entire membership to ensure that all members are treated fairly and pay their proportionate share of the co-op's operating and capital expenses.
When I arrived at OEC as the new CEO in 2016, it was clear that our members and our board wanted action on broadband. We've built fiber now to almost all of our system, and we've begun activating accounts.
Managing member expectations as to dates when service will be available has been our biggest challenge. Our members are anxious to be hooked up—the sooner the better. Our take rates have been very high in all areas for service at speeds of 100 megabits per second, 250 Mbps and 1 gigabit per second.
We're also seeing a solid percentage of people taking phone service. The telephone contacts and face-to-face meetings at our members' homes have been an incredibly positive method of member engagement. This is a big change from our past relationship.
We look forward to engaging our members in this new way for years to come, and we're gratified to bring educational, telemedicine, economic and recreational opportunities to our members and the surrounding customers that we serve outside of our electric network. This has been a win-win program as the fiber offerings also have saved our members significant money on state-of-the-art high-speed internet access and television services.
Because we live in a complex and fast-paced world, our members need current and timely information, reliability, competitive energy prices, clean and sustainable energy as well as options that meet their individual needs. With the digital transformation, many members have a different set of expectations and want more control and choices and quicker digital communication.
A key element is communication with members. They need and want to know what is happening with their co-op. KEC has stepped up these efforts by use of a variety of mediums that reach our membership—both electronically as well as through printed copies. We have changed from a bimonthly to a monthly publication of Light Post to be more timely with information, and we utilize KEC's website and Facebook account.
KEC uses these tools to give up-to-date outage information, employee profiles and co-op community involvement as well as to share general information and energy-savings tips. One communication technique that we have found to be extremely effective is posting short videos on Facebook that cover outage information, department or project highlights, rates and capital credits. We also use these short videos to address specific member questions and concerns.
KEC is making efforts to be visible within the communities that we serve through connecting with our schools, civic clubs, local chambers and economic development groups.
With minimal to flat growth and rising costs, efficiency is crucial to keep rates stable. KEC offers energy-savings tips and energy audits and is working on rebates for energy-efficient equipment and systems. We have implemented an aggressive procurement program, and KEC is working on internal infrastructure and upgrades and we hope in the future to offer different rate structures to put more control in our members' hands concerning their energy costs.
As part of OTEC's strategy, we've prioritized growth and member satisfaction. We asked the rural communities that we serve how we can help them reach their goals. We learned that, along with traditional major industries, our communities were all diligently concentrated on tourism.
Throughout our four-county territory in eastern Oregon, tourism is a $116 million industry. We took a step back and looked at our resources, our reach and our ability to influence economies of scale that our communities couldn't. This sparked our virtual reality project.
We produced a virtual FAM (familiarization) tour for each county that serves many purposes, including business attraction, workforce attraction through highlighting quality of life, and tourism promotion. The VR project was met with high engagement from our community partners, and we were able to leverage a state tourism grant to produce portions of the videos. In addition, this content will be available online and optimized for those looking to visit eastern Oregon.
We are excited to see the rewards from this innovative project and expect it to pay dividends by attracting visitors to support the hundreds of tourism-based businesses throughout our territory. We believe that what attracts someone to visit is also what attracts someone to move there, supporting many community initiatives all at once.
What a great time to ask a question about our member expectations. Columbia REA just completed a member satisfaction survey using NRECA Market Research Services in late 2019. Overall, our members are very happy with us and we received an American Customer Satisfaction Index score of 86. A few takeaways from the data:
Our members are looking for more two-way communication, especially regarding outages. In 2020, we'll be upgrading our website and working on new options for text messaging and automated email notifications.
Our members expect to talk with trusted energy advisers and request more assistance with rooftop solar and electric vehicle charging options. This is a bit more challenging for us because we've never been in the business of recommending technology. I believe there is a good discussion to be had regarding behind-the-meter work in the future.
Finally, our members want access to faster internet service. In 2018, we installed our first small fiber project and successfully expanded it in 2019. Our subsidiary is now working with NRTC to pick the best new location to expand fiber service to our members in 2020.
Our board and management team are committed to meeting member expectations and keeping Columbia REA as relevant for the next 80 years as we were when we first extended the electric lines into our rural countryside in 1940.
Adams Electric Cooperative members have shown a growing interest in electric vehicles. We aim to be a trusted energy adviser for our members and help steer them in the right direction when it comes to new technologies.
In 2019, the co-op purchased two electric vehicles as fleet cars for our daily office and travel ventures. With a goal to better educate our employees and members, we also invested in the ChooseEV web module.
Our board of directors authorized the co-op to offer a one-time bill credit of $300 to any member who installs a Level II EV charging station tied to the co-op's U-Shift, U-$ave (load control) off-peak subpanel program. This credit assists a member with the cost of purchasing and installing the charging station.
Less than a year into our program, 10 members have received their bill credit, and at least 30 members are known to have made EV purchases. In the fourth quarter of 2019, 489 unique users used the co-op's web portal to read more about EVs.
In addition to the potential growth of at-home charging, Adams is seeing EV owners wanting to recharge their vehicle batteries at local businesses. For this reason, the co-op recently helped to form Adams Energy Resources LLC, which can help businesses install ChargePoint Level II EV charging stations.
Co-op members today have choices. They can self-generate, buy shares of community solar projects, invest in home battery systems, and they are more informed than ever before.
Distribution co-ops have options, too. They can invest in renewable energy and pursue wholesale electricity from the market or other providers—not just their G&T. Market intelligence has become essential for ensuring they have access to the optimal resources to serve their members.
The co-ops that will succeed in the decades ahead will be those that prioritize two things: flexibility and competitiveness.
Thriving G&Ts will listen to their membership, offer customizable generation options and flexible power supply contracts. They must provide ever-changing programs and services that allow their member systems to serve member-consumers in new and better ways.
All co-ops will benefit from an understanding and acceptance of the options available to member-consumers—and make it a priority to remain competitive.
More than ever, we must earn our members' business.
In 2018, we suffered the complete loss of our only transmission import line due to an arson-caused wildfire. We were forced to bring in temporary generators at a significant cost for which our members are still paying. Due to the exorbitant installation cost and decades-long lead times of new secondary transmission lines, all of our traditional options were non-starters, which forced us to consider out-of-the-box alternatives. In 2019, we found a better alternative.
We are constructing a battery-microgrid project that will allow us to island sections of our system in the event of outages on our transmission line. Additionally, the project adds to our existing solar generation system and allows for leveraging these deployed photovoltaic arrays to augment the capacity of the new batteries.
By working closely with our G&T, we have been able to meet stringent state renewable energy guidelines in addition to working toward affordable improvements to our distribution system. These new technologies will help fulfill fundamental promises to our members regarding our reliability and resiliency and will enable us to continue our commitment to maintain the highest level of service at the lowest possible cost.