In the four months since the COVID-19 pandemic began disrupting normal life, electric cooperatives have made adaptations big and small to keep electricity flowing, and some of the changes could be permanent.

At Sussex Rural Electric Cooperative in New Jersey, 46 miles from the first major pandemic hotspot of New York City, officials worked quickly in mid-March to find ways to maintain service to their nearly 12,000 members while protecting the health of their 46 employees.

“We came up with a plan, shut down our office, and sent people home to work in the space of 72 hours,” said Claudia Raffay, director of marketing and member services.

Initial plans included ensuring that remote-work capabilities were sufficient for member services representatives, accounting personnel and other support staff to do their jobs.

In some cases, co-ops bought cameras for older computers so employees could participate in teleconferencing, and they installed Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) software to provide home access to Sussex REC’s telecommunications systems.

“We acquired 10 laptops for inside personnel and administrative staff so that if this happens again, they could work from home more easily,” said Raffay. “We see this added alternate worksite flexibility as a selling point to younger people to join our workforce in the future.”

More than 18 weeks later, those benefits are now part of the co-op’s response plan for hurricanes and other major storms.

“The work-from-home capabilities will allow us to send many of our employees home with their laptops before storms, which will make us more efficient and allow us to better serve our members,” Raffay said.

Sustainable Service

Pandemic response has also meant broad changes in the ways line crews, service techs and even vegetation management personnel do their jobs.

“We already operated in zones, based upon the districts in our service territory. Now we’ve platooned our crews to help maintain distance and separation,” said Brandon Meche, director of operations for Southwest Louisiana Electric Membership Corp.

While three-member crews once shared vehicles, SLEMCO’s fleet has been supplemented with new lease pickups, allowing lineworkers and service techs to self-isolate while traveling. Although two or more crews might be assigned to the same job, social distancing is planned into task design and included in jobsite briefings.

“We’ve not only assigned times and bays for warehouse and yard pickups, but we’ve also assigned specific fuel pumps and ice machines for each vehicle and crew,” said Meche. “If any crew should be taken out of service because of a positive COVID-19 test, we will be able to send them home as a unit and backfill with another complete crew shifting from elsewhere in the district or a neighboring area.”

While face-to-face interaction between crews from neighboring districts used to happen regularly, such occurrences are now expected to be rare, said Meche. “There are a lot more conference calls.”

Communal areas such as crew breakrooms are expected to be closed as long as pandemic concerns remain, and members of the co-op’s platooned crews have been placed on the same schedules to minimize the need to include other crews.

Power on Demand

Throughout the health crisis, co-ops have been able to depend on reliable power in part because generation and transmission operators have effectively worked their business continuity plans.

“We have to staff all of our essential operations posts with the 14 people available to work in a 168-hour week,” said Allan George, manager of system operations for Sunflower Electric Power Corp. The Hays, Kansas-based G&T is the power supplier for seven distribution co-ops in the state.

Members of Sunflower’s senior leadership team began planning for a potential pandemic in January and rolled out their response plan March 16.

“We worked out a schedule of 14 days on/14 days off and were able to keep all of our operators on their regular routines of going home after each shift,” said George, adding that 12-hour shifts remain standard.

A single member of each team rotates through a 14-day assignment remotely from home to be available to fill site assignments if needed. Implementation of that option has not been required.

Besides assigning key staff to their main control room and a backup site with supervisors, the co-op designated a third team, primarily made up of system operator trainees, to handle tasks that could be done from home. Plans are also in place to activate a training site as an alternative operations facility, should the main control room or backup area be taken out of service for maintenance or cleaning.

Since system operations certification takes two years, George identified former operations staffers who could be recertified and used in those positions if needed.

“That’s going to remain a central part of our backup plan in the event that members of my team are ever incapacitated by infections or other causes,” said George. “Making sure we can sustain operations requires that we have those contingencies addressed.”

Visible Changes

As more co-ops reopen their offices, they’re deploying directional signage, barrier screening and other measures to help separate employees from each other and members.

Where space allows, the number of cubicles has been reduced, and co-ops are allowing staff to work from home more regularly or even permanently.

Some co-ops have meter technicians working alternate schedules so that only a few of them are in the office at one time while others are in the field.

“Our energy services department is now conducting residential and commercial energy audits by telephone,” said Mark Sellers, communications manager of Wauchula, Florida-based Peace River Electric Cooperative. “They can still go out to a home or business if required, but they won’t go inside.”

When service technicians and other employees from SLEMCO need to work directly with members at their home or property, they pound distance stakes into the ground, said Meche.

“We tell the member that we will discuss pending or completed work from 6 feet away,” he said, adding that employees are also being kept abreast of changing state and local public health regulations. “Members pretty much understand and agree that they’re not looking to actually interact with us physically.”

Many co-op officials agree that the COVID-19 pandemic response has prompted managers and staff to look for ways to accomplish more with the technology they’ve had or acquired to keep systems working during the shutdown.

“Electronic processing of work orders allows the warehouse and people documenting the job to share digital information within the same hour, where our legacy system often required a week,” said Meche. “We’ve proven we can do a lot of things remotely or electronically out of necessity, and that’s sped up an evolution that would have otherwise taken far more time.”