Member co-ops communicate through crisis

“We’re all in this together.”

It’s a sentiment that resonated through the pandemic, but in February 2021, it took on another dimension. A deep freeze and high demand for power through the central United States exposed just how interconnected we really are via the transmission grid.

Electric cooperative members heard about the Southwest Power Pool (SPP), perhaps for the first time, as their power was cycled off by transmission operators to preserve the integrity of the grid. Interruptions came with little warning, leaving members with questions: Who? Why? How?

Electric cooperatives stepped up with answers, deploying a variety of tools from their communication toolboxes to prepare, inform, and connect with their members. Here are some examples.

Sioux Valley Energy

Colman, South Dakota

Sioux Valley Energy began advising members to conserve power prior to the energy emergency. However, on Feb. 16, SPP directed the Western Area Power Administration (WAPA) to shed load and open breakers, and 7,035 of the co-op’s members lost power. The outages came with little warning, and many members were understandably upset.

Sioux Valley Energy CEO and General Manager Tim McCarthy addressed member concerns directly that day in an open letter on the co-op’s website and on Facebook. Excerpts from the letter:

“Our members are upset. Rightfully so! It is dangerously cold in our region at the moment and to go without power for any length of time is more than an inconvenience. However, what I need to convey to all of our members is the consequences of not taking these actions this morning. … Simply put, the system starts to implode and it will shut down in very damaging fashion. … My vow to you is we will do everything we can to keep you informed. We will give notice when we can. However, the truth is, that may not be possible.”

McCarthy’s letter resonated with many throughout the region. The Facebook post featuring his letter was shared 362 times.

Carrie Vugteveen, Sioux Valley Energy vice president of public relations, says Sioux Valley Energy aims to be transparent with the membership, and McCarthy takes that to heart. “He not only talks about the cooperative’s motto, ‘Serving Our Members. Always,’ he lives it. He believes that Sioux Valley Energy’s membership deserves to hear from the leadership of the organization during times of crisis, even if it is a tough message to give and we may not have all the answers,” she says.

Mor-Gran-Sou Electric

Flasher, North Dakota

woman standing looking over man's shoulder at computer
Basin Electric’s Security and Response Services (SRS) can push outbound messages to co-op members, informing them of outages and other events. Pictured from left: Jolene Johnson, SRS dispatch supervisor, and Seth Neer, service dispatcher.

As unplanned outages peppered cooperatives in the region, Mor-Gran-Sou Electric saw an opportunity to employ outbound messaging via telephone to alert the entire membership of the possibility of outages. Ultimately, members around northwest Mandan and New Salem, North Dakota, were affected the morning of Feb. 16.

“With only a few minutes to prepare a message, we got to work and initiated an IVR (interactive voice recording) message as soon as possible. That IVR message was used as the backbone to our initial message on Facebook and our website,” says Jackie Miller, Mor-Gran-Sou Electric chief of staff. The automated calls also freed up their member service representatives to speak to members one-on-one.

Whether it is a typical outage or the recent controlled interruptions of service, Miller says they try their best to keep the lights on and members informed.

“Better-informed members make better decisions should their power become impacted. Also, we try to keep the message as condensed and consistent as possible, and SRS (Security and Response Services) is helpful in message preparation,” she says.

Jolene Johnson supervises SRS at Basin Electric. She says the outbound messaging capability used by Mor-Gran-Sou Electric is available to any cooperative that uses SRS’s services. The co-op provides the message and the specifics of who needs to receive the message, and SRS staff and software can quickly push out the message.

“The new software program is actually very helpful and can reach a lot of members in a very short time. This, along with social media, is a great way to communicate and keep everyone informed about all kinds of emergency situations, disconnects, or planned outages,” Johnson says.

West River Electric Cooperative

Wall, South Dakota

SPP saw how extended extreme cold in the southern part of its territory could impact overall operations, so they began encouraging conservative operations as early as Feb. 9. West River Electric took early action to pass the conservation message on to their members. Through a series of Facebook posts beginning Feb. 14, they shared tips on how to save energy and explained why it was important for each member to do their part. By the morning of Feb. 16, however, the crisis had escalated and 2,084 West River Electric members faced a 50-minute outage.

Veronica Kusser, marketing and member relations manager for West River Electric, says they took their phones back from the answering service and put all hands on deck to help take member calls.

“The outage happened at a tough time for parents getting kids ready for school and getting ready for work themselves. The members were very understanding when we shared information with them,” she says.

West River Electric was prepared for a second day of outages that fortunately did not come.

East River Electric Power Cooperative

Madison, South Dakota

man looking into camera
Chris Studer discusses the impacts of the energy emergency on South Dakotans’ energy bills in a Feb. 23 interview on Dakota News Now.

East River Electric embraced media relations to help electric consumers in eastern South Dakota understand how they may be impacted and what they could do to help. They were first notified of the possibility of an energy emergency on Valentine’s Day. So that afternoon, the East River communications staff mobilized a series of statements, press releases, and social media posts to get the message to the public.

“Our strategy in working with the media during a crisis or emergency situation is to be out front and aggressive in getting our message to the public,” says Chris Studer, East River Electric chief member and public relations officer. “We take every media call and respond as quickly as possible because, as a former news reporter, I know all too well that the media has tight deadlines to meet and we at East River want to be included in every story they’re writing or broadcasting.”

East River Electric’s news releases and media interviews were published throughout the week by a variety of news outlets, including newspapers, radio stations, and television stations.

East River Electric CEO and General Manager Tom Boyko later reflected on the event with appreciation for employees in a letter to the editor in the Aberdeen News, published March 29. “I would like to thank the dedicated employees at the Western Area Power Administration and Basin Electric for their tireless work throughout the storm, which was an extremely stressful situation for all involved. Employees at those two organizations made split-second decisions to make sure that the electric grid stayed intact to prevent widespread outages that could’ve taken days to repair.”

Sioux Valley Energy and East River Electric

In the days following the unplanned outages, Sioux Valley Energy took to the digital airwaves with their intermediate power supplier, East River Electric Power Cooperative, in a podcast. The 16-minute episode of “Inside the Grid” featured McCarthy, Boyko, and host Jay Buchholz, key account and community relations executive at Sioux Valley Energy, discussing the scenario that led to Sioux Valley Energy’s members losing power.

Boyko said as the cold weather system covered the entirety of SPP’s footprint, the whole area used more natural gas for heating, making less available for power generation. Also wind generation was low, and overall electricity demand was very high. “Just like your house, if you overload the system, something’s going to pop,” Boyko said in the podcast. “They had to open some breakers to relieve that load.”

McCarthy said he sensed the frustration from members when their power was interrupted, and he wanted to help them understand why. “This is a situation where those of us in the industry had to make some tough choices and take swift and decisive action for the greater good of our members. While not popular in the moment, I hope our members understand we’re here to serve as stewards,” he said.

The “Inside the Grid” podcast is part of Sioux Valley Energy’s targeted communications for commercial and industrial members, which also includes a monthly newsletter. Vugteveen says the podcast was a great avenue to provide additional information and context for the entire membership as well as commercial and industrial members.

McCone Electric Cooperative

Circle, Montana

The ripple effects of the energy crisis spread to eastern Montana, where 1,976 homes, ranches, farms, and businesses on McCone Electric’s lines experienced outages on Feb. 16. Michael Hoy, McCone Electric general manager, says office staff quickly called as many key accounts as possible to alert them before losing their phone service to the outages, as well. The cooperative also used Facebook to keep members updated.

The next day, Hoy expressed gratitude for members’ efforts and patience in a Facebook post:

“Neighbors helping neighbors. It’s a core value of Montanans. Thank you to the McCone Electric members who contributed to stabilizing the grid yesterday. The 30-minute power outage allowed Southwest Power Pool (SPP) operators ensure that the grid, reaching from Canada to North Texas, was able to supply energy where it was needed.”

Hoy says they saw a very positive attitude from the membership once the co-op described the reason behind the outage. “We explained that under ‘mutual aid agreements,’ other regions of SPP would have supported our area the week before, if power plants would have gone down during our sub-zero temperatures.”

Looking ahead, Hoy says McCone will add a form to their Disaster and Emergency Handbook that can serve as a framework for formulating a uniform statement to all members, should the situation arise again.

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