As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to disrupt lives and businesses around the world, electric cooperatives and their equipment suppliers are taking extra precautions to ensure they have the inventory they need to keep power, and in some cases broadband, flowing.

“Some cooperatives that we serve are stopping capital expansion projects and just focusing on repairs and maintenance,” said Jonathan Oliver, vice president of utility sales and services for Arkansas Electric Cooperatives Inc. “Several are making requests for additional inventory in anticipation of supply chain disruptions.”

The eight supply and logistics cooperatives operating as the Electric Utility Distributors Association (EUDA) provide the bulk of materials and parts for the electric distribution and generation and transmission co-ops.

EUDA members began preparing for the coronavirus pandemic in February. That early action set the stage for increased inventory levels and stepped-up contacts with vendors and manufacturers to prepare for contingencies.

“We wanted to get out ahead of any possible supply chain disruptions associated with the COVID-19 situation, so we have brought $2.5 million to $3 million in ‘extra inventory’ above and beyond what we would normally be carrying this time of year,” said Matt Brandrup, president and CEO of Rural Electric Supply Cooperative.

Madison, Wisconsin-based RESCO has about $20 million in inventory on hand at seven warehouses, and essential parts and equipment are arriving regularly, said Brandrup.

“We focused on bringing in large amounts of material with a particular focus on pole line hardware, ERMCO transformers and fiberglass enclosures along with robust inventory levels of all other products,” said Brandrup. “We also have large quantities of primary underground cable on order.”

At warehouses across the country where member-owned logistics co-ops are working to keep up with demand from co-ops and public utility districts, on-site staffing has been reduced.

“There are employees that must still come into the office; however, we have adjusted policies to ensure the safety of our employees. Only employees and freight companies are allowed on site,” said Lonnie Moore, chief operating officer of Raleigh, North Carolina-based Tarheel Electric Membership Association.

Staff have been encouraged to wash their hands frequently and avoid personal contact during their work assignments, and delivery drivers are being asked to remain in their vehicles during loading and unloading. Similar practices have been implemented across this segment of the industry.

“We have a sanitizing routine and have given our employees protective equipment like face shields, gloves and disinfecting supplies to use,” said RESCO’s Brandrup.

“We have additional material on site to support needs and have asked our employees to practice social distancing and exceptional personal hygiene,” said AECI’s Oliver. “We have also told members and vendors that we have limited access to our facilities to only employees and trucks bringing in supplies. We are maintaining social distancing when drivers deliver products and telling our drivers to do the same as they deliver products.”

EUDA members are also preparing for regular seasonal events that impact their member co-ops, including tornadoes, hurricanes, wildfires and floods.

Like many of their members, supply chain co-ops also are braced for a protracted fight against the pandemic.

“Pandemic planning is different than what we would normally see during a major storm,” said TEMA’s Moore. “Our emergency response planning still applies here. We are monitoring this situation closely.”

Many procedures are being refined as conditions change, and co-op logistics experts agree that response processes will continue to evolve until the pandemic subsides.

“We mitigate storm issues by having more stock, but we cannot plan for having a large number of employees absent due to illness,” said Oliver. “Pandemic planning is definitely unique, and I am sure we will have many lessons learned after this event.”

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