“Oops, hang on,” says Jay Spaans, the manager of Douglas Electric Cooperative.

He holds the phone aside and starts shouting out the punch-pad numbers for someone to unlock the security gate to the pole yard at the co-op’s brand-new headquarters building.

He and the whole co-op staff of seven are still in the process of moving in and getting used to the new digs. For now, shouting works just as well as an intercom system.

“You work with what you got,” Spaans says.

Such is the do-with attitude that keeps the lights burning for the co-op’s 611 consumer-members, whose homes and businesses dot the wind-blown prairie landscape in southeastern South Dakota.

As endless as the prairie may seem, Spaans, who is also the co-op’s line supervisor, estimates that any member can be reached in person within minutes. Its territory comprises just 400 square miles.

On the other side of the nation, between the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Chesapeake Bay, any member of Rappahannock Electric Cooperative whose lights blink off can get a text message alert on their cell phone in seconds.

“That text lets them know that we know about their outage and tells them how soon they can expect power,” says Kent Farmer, Rappahannock’s CEO and president.

With a membership approaching 170,000 that’s spread out among 22 counties with 17,000 square miles of suburbs, farms, rugged hilly forests, and swampy watershed, Farmer is grateful that technology lets the co-op reach out personally to members.

In addition to the sophistication and resources that comes with being Virginia’s third-largest electric utility, Rappahannock must also embrace the rural, small-town, high-touch standards that characterize the co-op philosophy.

From the window of a jetliner 35,000 feet above Fillmore, Utah, in the midsection of the state, there’s a good chance that some of the huge green circles of irrigated crops you’d see dotting the brown desert are connected to power from a Flowell Electric Cooperative line. Resist blinking though; the co-op’s territory is only about 25 miles from one end to the other and serves about 250 members, or 515 meters.

General Manager Durand Robison is proud of each of those irrigation pumps, and he’s well aware how much his members rely on co-op power to extract groundwater and pressurize it to shower a 130-acre circle of corn or alfalfa.

He and his staff of two account managers and five to seven lineworkers also must keep power flowing to about 3,000 Millard County residential customers and businesses covered in municipal maintenance agreements.

It’s a lot of responsibility for a few people, Robison says.

“I have heard all my career that you have got to have economies of scale, that you have to have a critical mass to stay in business,” he says. “Even though we’re small, we have that critical mass. When I sit with our directors, they represent probably 50 percent of the co-op’s power sales. If we have to change a policy or a rate, we can get on the phone and get it done quickly. This is one area where being small can be an advantage. We will get about 30 percent of our whole membership at an annual meeting.”

It’s also a real advantage, he says, that most of the people in the service region know the history of the co-op, which came online on Christmas Eve 1944.

“Basically, we know each other, and people still remember. That is a strength that no technology offers.”

Chris Jones, CEO of Middle Tennessee EMC, sees the advantages inherent in a small, close-knit cooperative.

“I would be envious of the level of member engagement and loyalty,” he says.

His vibrant, growing membership of about 230,000 is in an area that flanks Nashville on the east and south. Its 12,000 miles of line go to the palatial homes of country music mega-stars, suburbs, businesses and manufacturers, and small rural residences and mobile homes.

Despite their size, Jones is adamant that the highest value for the co-op’s 425 employees is member satisfaction. It’s the heart of the co-op’s strategy, he says, driving most decisions from high-level staffing to investment in technologies.

Ultimately, the core mission of Pedernales Electric Cooperative in Texas with more than 333,000 meters—the largest co-op distribution system in the country—is no different from that of Boone Valley Electric in Iowa, the network’s smallest with 114 meters: delivering safe, reliable, affordable power to members.

But the challenges of working in a rapidly evolving industry are driving utilities across the board to rethink the services they provide and the ways they provide them. It’s tempting to assume that big co-ops, with their larger staffs and deeper resources, would be better positioned to adapt. But co-op experts say it’s not so.

“You cannot draw a bright line and suggest innovation in any area automatically falls on one side or the other,” says Jim Spiers, NRECA senior vice president for business and technology strategies.

Spiers says regardless of size, cooperatives that thrive in times of change share certain traits:

  • Employees and leaders who are driven, particularly in areas of technological or managerial expertise.
  • A supportive board of directors.
  • Passion for service.

He says visible technological investments like renewable generation, SCADA systems, or microgrids only tell part of the story. Serving members well can just as often hinge on what a co-op decides not to deploy.

“Everything goes through the filter of practical application,” Spiers says. “Innovation is unique to circumstances, not to technology.”

Robison, for instance, says he’s looked into advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) with system monitoring platforms for his small Utah co-op. Spaans in South Dakota says he has as well.

Both concluded they could push for such a system and likely acquire it. But for now, they feel it’s more prudent to do AMI and make do with their less high-tech method of monitoring system outages and co-op response.

At both co-ops, each night, the main office phone is forwarded to a lineman’s smart phone. If the power goes out, the member calls the co-op and the crew responds, generally within an hour or less.

“You have to get the best bang for the buck when you’re spending members’ money,” Spaans says. “It just didn’t pencil out.”

‘The most important technology’

At Rappahannock Electric, where crews keep tabs on thousands of miles of line over diverse, challenging terrain, Farmer says technology has been the key to their success.

He points to one particular advance that lets large co-ops maintain the personal touch that comes more easily to smaller co-ops: a laptop computer in a utility truck.

Loaded with mapping software and connected to the co-op for real-time updates, Farmer says these devices have delivered a quantum leap in the effectiveness of field operations and the service they can deliver.

“It has revolutionized everything in the utility field. We work smarter and safer and more efficiently than we have ever been because of it,” says Farmer, who’s worked at co-ops since 1979 and has led Rappahannock since 2004. “It puts information in the hands of employees.”

He says Rappahannock’s investment in the technology was a large one, but it was deployed as a two-step approach over time. First, the co-op provided zero-interest loans to employees who wanted to buy a computer. Those who bought one learned on their own how to use it, cutting down on the overall training expense while improving the acceptance and use rates.

After a critical mass of the co-op’s 400 employees were computer savvy, and an appropriate IT team was in place, the machines were deployed to trucks, substations, and other facilities.

“Computers have been the most important technology in our business up to now,” Farmer says.

Creativity and adaptation

While new technologies help, says Jones of Middle Tennessee EMC, a critical equalizer for large and small cooperatives is a human element: creativity and critical thinking.

Among other recent initiatives, Jones has pushed the co-op to reshape various job roles and responsibilities “to create enough bandwidth for them to think, and research, and act.”

“I intentionally shaped certain positions to create more opportunity for strategic and innovative thought,” he says. “Our board of directors and I talked about it, and I had their support all along.”

Jones says such a move starts with taking an honest measurement of the co-op’s strengths and weighing those against the needs and expectations of their members.

Spaans says his staff is too small for any such reorganization. Adapting at Douglas Electric means current employees must step up and adapt.

“It’s just one of those deals from being small,” he says. “You do everything, but you also end up thinking about the whole co-op and not just your own part in it.”

Cooperation and innovation

Farmer sees the principle of “Cooperation among Cooperatives” as a great leveler.

“Regardless of whether it’s a big co-op or a small one, we have a system that gives everyone an advantage,” he says. “We’re not in competition. We’re part of something larger and something connected by values and principle.”

Robison agrees.

He says Flowell Electric keeps pace with industry changes with a little help from their co-op friends. Arrangements with Deseret Power, Flowell’s G&T, and nearby Dixie Power provide staffing and operational support that would otherwise be out of reach for the tiny co-op.

“These agreements allow us to combine programs and staff resources,” Robison says. “They provide pickups and trucks. We own poles and wire. They have an engineering staff. We couldn’t possibly have an engineer. We use their information technology resources.

“The size we are, we wouldn’t be able to have those kinds of services.”

Even so, Spiers says, ultimately the ability of co-ops large and small to succeed equally comes down to their ability to innovate.

“As much as I love all seven of the cooperative principles, the one that I think matters at the end of the day is Autonomy and Independence,” he says. “This is what causes necessary innovation, because it empowers individuals and teams to get a job done.”