The first references began appearing in professional literature just after Christmas 2019: A new coronavirus was raising concerns in the global public health community. Within weeks, it had become a key topic of conversations, emails, and conference calls, particularly in critical infrastructure sectors.

That’s when generation and transmission cooperatives began mobilizing plans to minimize disruptions from the gathering crisis.

“We had a pandemic response plan that we first developed about 10 years ago, and we revisited it in 2016,” says Michael McFarland, director of enterprise risk management at Great River Energy (GRE). “When it became apparent that the virus was not being contained well, we activated our plan at its lowest level in late February of 2020.”

The response of the Maple Grove, Minnesota-based G&T was replicated in a variety of ways across the co-op network. The challenge for G&Ts and distribution co-ops would be maintaining service and systems as conditions and scientific knowledge changed.

“On March 12, we progressed to our medium plan-activation level,” McFarland says. “The first thing we did was move everybody who could possibly work remotely home and deployed our technical support team to the mission of making that work smoothly.”

GRE announced the work-from-home policy on a Thursday, telling employees to take laptops and any other items they’d need to do their jobs. By the following Monday, most employees were up and running from their dens, family rooms, and other makeshift office spaces.

“There’s no good time to face a once-in-a century pandemic, but five or 10 years ago, this might have been worse, and technologically we would have limped along,” McFarland says. “Most people are fairly technologically sophisticated, and GRE has a lot of advanced infrastructure, so we were prepared even though we did not know what to expect.”

In the year since pandemic mitigation measures were first implemented for GRE employees, the G&T has operated normally.

“Throughout the pandemic, our remote working employees have proven they can do things differently and successfully,” he says. “We’ll certainly take these successes into consideration as we contemplate flexible work arrangement options in the future.”

Changing SOPs

Last winter, no one knew how long the COVID-19 pandemic would last, how bad things might get, or how deeply it would impact lives. Those outcomes remain uncertain even as new vaccines offer the promise of mitigation. What is certain is that in the more than 12 months since the pandemic began dominating world events, America’s electric grid has kept humming.

While disruptions from weather events and scheduled maintenance have been handled routinely, changes inside power plants and control rooms have taken place, and some of them are likely to be permanent.

Hours after the senior leadership team of Hays, Kansas-based Sunflower Electric Power Corp. agreed to suspend nonessential on-site activities at its headquarters and other facilities, Allan George, the G&T’s manager of system operations, launched a plan to maintain service to the co-op’s seven distribution members from two separate control rooms instead of one.

At Sunflower’s offices, workstations were modified for separation, and custodial services, once considered an afterthought, are monitored and regularly reviewed.

Facility access protocols have also been expanded to include more separation between departments and restricted control room tours.

Sunflower’s leaders say the new measures have helped increase awareness of now-risky practices in and out of the workplace.

“The stringent protocols have been crucial to protecting the health of our employees and maintaining the viability of our control rooms,” George says. “We continue to operate from separate control centers instead of having all four crews work from one location. In addition, the workspace cleaning that is performed daily at the start and end of each shift will likely remain for an extended period due to this pandemic.”

Converting the boardroom

For Arkansas Electric Cooperative Corp. (AECC), one big change involves the way it meets a Rural Utilities Service (RUS) requirement that its financials be reviewed periodically by private credit reporting agencies.

Vernon “Buddy” Hasten took over as AECC CEO in October 2019. He was scheduled to lead the Little Rock-based G&T’s delegation to New York last April for its 2020 credit rating presentations.

“These meetings are important because they can help us get lower rate financing,” says Samantha Lewis, AECC’s director of finance. “They give us an opportunity to tell our financial story and discuss our forecasts and projections.”

The AECC team typically spends a couple of days in New York for a joint presentation to the agencies and sidebar meetings focused on finance matters.

When pandemic infection rates in the northeast prompted travel restrictions to New York, and AECC’s meeting was cancelled, Hasten and the G&T’s leadership team were already looking for virtual ways to maintain important programs and key relationships.

“We turned our boardroom into a modern telecommunications studio,” says Rob Roedel, communications director for AECC and the Arkansas statewide association. “We saw widespread value in having reliable television and scalable digital communications capabilities to support many of our operations during and after the pandemic.”

Discussions with the rating agencies continued, with co-op leaders talking to representatives about ways to meet reporting requirements that would fully comply with RUS and potential lenders.

The presentations came off without a hitch. Some of the credit reporting agencies had more participants observing than would have been involved in face-to-face meetings in New York, Lewis adds. AECC officials are considering a remote meeting from their corporate headquarters for 2021.

“We saved time and travel costs, but there are still advantages to holding on-site meetings, including developing personal relationships,” Lewis says. “After the pandemic, we may pursue a format of biennial meetings in New York, alternating with teleconference presentations, if those arrangements prove agreeable to the rating agencies.”

The adaptations have inspired AECC and statewide staff to continue to hone their remote presentation skills, including green-screen technology, and incorporate it into virtual meetings.

“None of our employees ever worked in a television production studio,” Roedel says. “It’s been fun to watch them marvel at the vast options that are available with this type of technology.”

Staff adaptations

Operating during the pandemic has also prompted both distribution co-ops and their G&Ts to broaden their relationships with public agencies beyond law enforcement, fire, and emergency services. Regular interaction with public health officials and medical professionals from teaching hospitals and regional trauma centers has proven vital.

To strengthen its pandemic response, Tri-State Generation & Transmission Association expanded its crisis management team, led by the senior vice presidents for generation and transmission. The Westminster, Colorado-based G&T’s key personnel have met twice each week throughout the pandemic to discuss various mitigation and control issues, including personal protective equipment, disinfection and sanitation, and facilities and project staffing levels.

“Our plans have been developed to align with current risk levels across our service area to mitigate cross-contamination and unnecessary exposure risks for our employees,” says Barry Ingold, Tri-State’s senior vice president for generation and incident commander for the co-op’s crisis management team. “Tri-State is utilizing five different risk-mitigation levels that range from normal operations through the extremely high-risk mitigation level where occupancy limit targets are set at 10%.”

The G&T’s re-entry and facility risk mitigation team regularly tracks government orders on social distancing, face covering guidance, temperature monitoring, and the local and regional availability of personal protective equipment.

A pandemic supply list that includes more than 100 items has been developed for the G&T, and materials are shipped weekly to outlying facilities using sanitized containers.

“One of our biggest successes has been our staff’s adaptation to changes in the way we work,” says Elizabeth Schilling, Tri-State’s corporate communications manager. “For some, that has meant shifting schedules and altering crew sizes at the plants and in the field, and for others it has meant long-term remote-work assignments. Our IT team has provided ongoing support to ensure our systems would work well through these changes, and our people and culture team has now rolled out a formal telecommuting program that took effect at the start of the year.”

Ingold says the rapid changes brought about by the pandemic have provided an invaluable way to test the ability of electric co-ops to adapt.

“This whole situation has been a test of resilience,” he says. “We’ve learned that our teams and our industry can not only respond in the short term to the crisis at hand but can adapt and evolve into even more effective and agile organizations.”