Electric cooperatives demonstrate resilience in planning and operating
BY ANN THELEN
As providers of an essential service, electric cooperatives perform a lot of work behind the scenes for electricity to be available when a member-consumer flips the light switch or turns on a computer. The continually evolving dynamics of the COVID-19 pandemic show how much we rely on electricity during these challenging times. Thanks to reliable power and technology, many employees across Iowa’s diverse economy transitioned to remote work environments successfully.
Iowa’s generation and transmission cooperatives took aggressive planning measures before the COVID-19 crisis emerged in the state. Their resiliency allows Iowans to power on through this pandemic with safe and reliable energy.
Co-ops are hard at work
Although most co-op offices throughout Iowa have closed their doors to visitors, their message is clear – we’re still working to provide members with safe, reliable power.
“The situation may have altered how we do business, but it hasn’t changed what we do – serving our members with power when they need it,” says Bill Cherrier, executive vice president/CEO of Central Iowa Power Cooperative (CIPCO). CIPCO’s distribution co-op members serve a population of nearly 300,000 rural and urban residents in 58 of Iowa’s 99 counties.
Weeks before COVID-19 was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization, CIPCO conducted a pandemic simulation with its workforce. Dan Burns, vice president of utility operations for CIPCO, led the exercise.
“While we regularly conduct planned emergency response simulations, we held a surprise tabletop exercise for a pandemic in February,” Burns explains. “As part of the simulation, we operated under a hypothetical scenario that 40% of our essential staff was unavailable due to pandemic. With this reduction, we would have minimal staff available to run the power plant and transmission system.”
Taking this approach allowed CIPCO to map out in advance how the co-op would react in the situation. Leadership examined employee bench strength, outlining the people who knew how to do different jobs within the organization other than their current roles. They discussed what would happen if certain power plants needed to run more to compensate for other temporary plant closures. The team prioritized what maintenance projects could be deferred without sacrificing reliability to member-consumers.
“Our dispatch system is our most critical area and the hub of everything we do to keep the power flowing,” Burns says. “We made that area off-limits to anyone other than the five people who work in dispatch.”
An always-prepared mindset
At Corn Belt Power Cooperative, whose distribution co-ops serve members in 41 north-central Iowa counties, similar measures were taken through rigorous cleaning and restricting access in the control center and other areas.
“Our control center operators are essential for keeping the system online. They manage high-voltage power lines that only certified NERC (North American Electric Reliability Corporation) operators can do,” explains Ken Kuyper, executive vice president and general manager for Corn Belt Power. “Dependable power production relies on the regulation of the transmission network, which provides electric energy from generation facilities. A disruption can affect many locations and consumers.”
Electric cooperatives are veterans at preparing for emergencies, such as tornadoes and ice storms. This always-prepared mindset has served the co-ops well in the pandemic situation, one of which this country hasn’t seen since the Spanish Flu more than a century ago. Even with intense planning, it’s unpredictable.
“No one is ever 100% prepared for a pandemic of this magnitude,” says Matt Washburn, executive vice president/general manager of Northwest Iowa Power Cooperative (NIPCO), whose distribution cooperatives serve Iowans in 10 counties. “Because of our cooperative business structure, we’ve been able to nimbly adapt to the daily changes of the pandemic.”
Kuyper echoes the value of the cooperative structure. “We always put our members’ needs first and are proud of our exceptional track record of reliability and service.”
Safety remains paramount
Like CIPCO and Corn Belt Power Cooperative, NIPCO placed significant emphasis on first keeping its employees safe, and then ensuring remote work could be seamless. The IT teams worked tirelessly to ensure staff and distribution cooperatives were able to effectively and efficiently work remotely.
At every co-op, safety is paramount. Under normal conditions, working with power lines and equipment can be dangerous if the proper processes and procedures are not followed. With the pandemic causing distractions, there is the potential for that atmosphere to create an unsafe work environment. It’s a daily priority for co-op leaders to mitigate and minimize distractions by helping their workers keep safety top-of-mind at all times. They do so by following strict workplace cleaning standards, distancing practices and a constant refinement of processes.
“Planning and preparations have allowed us to provide reliable power just as we have always done,” Cherrier says. “This situation will make cooperatives even stronger and more prepared. It’s in our cooperative spirit to work together and power on.”
Ann Thelen is the editor of Living with Energy in Iowa.
Ensuring the continuous delivery of safe and reliable power
Key steps taken by Iowa’s G&T cooperatives
Taking trucks home. Crew members are assigned trucks to take home, if necessary, so they can go directly to job sites rather than reporting or returning to co-op headquarters or warehouses.
Ramping up hygiene and distancing. Work areas are cleaned between shifts, in-office workdays are alternated when appropriate, start times are staggered and distancing procedures are strictly enforced.
Performing solo projects. Focusing on jobs out in the field that can be completed by one person at a time to increase distancing.
Working in pairs, staggered starts. Lineworkers are staggering start times and working in the same pairs to avoid spreading COVID-19.
Facilitating remote work. IT departments ensure all employees who need to work remotely have laptops and VPN connections.
Providing ways to collaborate. Employees who are working remotely use software, such as Microsoft Teams, to facilitate face-to-face online collaboration.