Safe, reliable and affordable power have always been at the top of the list of expectations members have of their electric cooperatives. But over the decades, as co-ops grew more adept at providing the so-called Big Three, that list has begun to fill with other needs and wants, like renewables, more control over power use and help with new energy technologies.

Recently though, as consumers have been confronted with regional power outages and rolling blackouts, unprecedented heat waves, wildfires, polar vortexes and summer storms, transformer shootings, utility cyberattacks, supply chain crunches, government regulations and widespread price inflation, many co-ops are seeing a rise in member concerns about their ability to access safe, reliable and affordable energy.

“There is certainly increased pressure on all three,” says Venkat Banunarayanan, NRECA vice president of integrated grid. “Reliability is a basic, fundamental attribute of the grid, and people expect it to be reliable no matter what changes are being made. The negative impact of not having reliable power is magnified today due to increased electrification and greater dependence of key infrastructure, like education and healthcare, on the electricity supply.”

NRECA research shows “cost has become a bigger driver of overall member satisfaction,” says Michael Sassman, NRECA’s director of consumer analytics and market research. In previous years, cost-related factors typically “would have been number 2 or 3 on the list of importance, but now they’re number 1 in a lot of cases,” especially at co-ops that implemented rate increases.

“That $100 electric bill didn’t seem so bad last year, but it feels horrible this year because everything else has gone up,” he says. The 2022 J.D. Power Electric Utility Residential Customer Satisfaction Study saw customer satisfaction drop for the first time in its history, as more Americans are experiencing higher monthly bills and feeling worse off financially. On a 1,000- point scale, satisfaction slid to 731 from 748 in 2021, according to the survey of more than 103,000 customers served by 145 of the nation’s largest electric utilities, including co-ops.

For co-ops, a little sensitivity to members’ financial challenges—and an emphasis on the cooperative difference—can go a long way, Sassman says.

“It’s a great opportunity for the co-op to go out and say, ‘You know what? We’re fighting for you. That’s why we haven’t raised rates or why we’ve raised rates less than inflation.’ Co-ops can explain how they work, that they exist for the members.”

Another pain point for members these days is weather-related power disruptions, which are happening more often and lasting longer, according to an analysis from Climate Central showing that outages in the past 10 years increased by 64% compared with the previous decade.

In Montana, co-op officials say many members have lingering concerns following rolling blackouts in 2021 when Winter Storm Uri drove overwhelming regional demand.

“It’s been a constant conversation in Montana and among our members for the past two years,” says Ryan Hall, communications director for the Montana Electric Cooperatives’ Association (MECA). “Since then, we’ve had several members reach out and ask what we are doing to ensure their power stays on. A half hour without power in -30-degree weather could be deadly.”

One strategy that can help take the edge off is giving members plenty of advance warning on what to expect and how to prepare, according to a September 2022 Touchstone Energy® Online Focus Group survey. Alerts can include everything from possible outages, suggestions for emergency kits, affected areas, severity level and contact information should they lose power. But the same research also shows that about half of co-op members may be unaware such an offering exists.

“Most of the members who indicate their co-op doesn’t offer this service or don’t know are somewhat or very interested” in getting these notifications, says Angelika Hoelger, a Touchstone Energy research analyst.

Among the Focus Group report’s “action items” are recommendations that co-ops communicate before, during and after an outage through texts, emails or social media posts. Some 83% of surveyed members found it “helpful” when co-ops have provided infographics explaining the power restoration process after a weather event or natural disaster.

“Members state that this infographic has helped them better understand the process and may lessen anxiety,” Hoelger says.

Cybersecurity and physical grid security issues may also rattle members, with regular reports of utilities suffering ransomware attacks or stolen consumer data and a recent wave of substation sabotage attacks.

“These kinds of deliberate threats to safety and reliability are particularly unsetting for members,” says Banunarayanan. “It’s important for co-ops to get out in front of these anxieties and show what they’re doing to keep their systems secure.”

A recent Co-op Cybersecurity Lexicon project completed by NRECA offers insights on what members expect from their co-ops when it comes to securing their data and protecting the grid and gives advice about how to discuss cyber issues proactively and reactively.

“There is a way to proactively discuss co-op cyber readiness with co-op consumer-members without triggering alarm bells,” says Stephen Bell, NRECA’s senior director of media and public relations. “Discussing cybersecurity in a way that consumers can approach enhances the co-op’s reputation and provides a meaningful increase in consumer confidence.”

'You don't want to be caught off guard'

All this is playing out as co-ops face increasing requests from members to provide modern services and assistance with new technologies.

“Many co-op members want the customization, personalization and accessibility they get from everywhere else,” says NRECA’s Holly Wetzel, senior director of marketing and member communications. “They want and expect their co-op to operate in a modern way, especially as younger members move from urban areas.”

Monitoring trends and maintaining two-way communication with members is key. “You don’t want to be caught off guard by any of this,” says Jeremy Tucker, manager of strategic communications & engagement at Delaware Electric Cooperative, headquartered in Greenwood.

In January, on the heels of a holiday deep freeze that impacted more than half the country, DEC reached out to members multiple times with information on how to lower energy costs, who to call for heating assistance and how the co-op is trying to keep rates affordable. Messages appeared on traditional editorial platforms, geofenced digital ads, over-the-top media services, press interviews and in-person events with members.

Work on that outreach effort began two months earlier.

“Our rates are about 30% higher than last year, and we saw in December that energy-use kilowatt sales were soaring,” says Tucker, noting that call center volume in January was up 10% compared to last January and that calls lasted longer than usual, an indicator that a majority of the calls were bill-related. “We tried to be proactive by not only monitoring the data that would help us prepare and predict those higher bills, but also to be able to answer questions and help members during this difficult time.”

Oregon Trail Electric Cooperative’s system wasn’t impacted by last summer’s spate of Western wildfires, but members were still on edge.

“We got calls asking, ‘Is this going to happen to us,’” says OTEC’s Lea Hoover, director of member and strategic services. “It wasn’t a lot of calls, but it was enough for us to feel the need to put out communication on this because they were concerned.”

As wildfires and other natural disasters are occurring with more frequency and intensity and over broader areas, OTEC plans to make a more concerted effort to engage members.

“It’s email, it’s social media, it’s in print, and it’s on their bill,” Hoover says. “We’re driving people to our website, making sure all the information’s easy to find. “Our members are looking for a lot more proactive communications. Any time we elevate how we communicate and keep front and center of our members is still going to be the right time. We’re not too late to the game.”

The need for co-ops to emphasize The Big Three in their communications will not likely abate anytime soon, says Banunarayanan.

“Many of the forces that are causing these concerns—more destructive weather; more sophisticated cyberattacks; and increasing threats to physical grid security—are long-term challenges that all utilities, including co-ops, will need to address,” he says. “Members will be looking to their co-ops to adapt well and to reassure them that they can continue to keep the lights on.”