Author: Wade Harris

Co-ops Struggle to Fill Job Openings Amid Pandemic-Related Economic Trends

Early retirements and a desire by employees to transform their lifestyles—economic trends spurred by the COVID-19 pandemic—have made it tougher for some electric cooperatives to fill job openings.

Citizens Electric Corp. in Perryville, Missouri, recently lost about a half-dozen journeymen linemen to retirement or to private contractors that pay a bit more, offer or require large amounts of overtime and provide a chance to travel the nation building transmission lines.

“I do think the pandemic has had an impact,” said Curt Iffert, the co-op’s vice president of operations. “Some of the people who had an inclination to travel or move to a different area seized the opportunity.”

Those contractor jobs offer as much as 40 hours of lucrative overtime pay a week, which allows journeymen to earn much more than they would working a typical 40-hour week at a co-op for $80,000 to $100,000 a year, he said.

“I don’t think you’re going to do that forever,” Iffert said about the contract work. “Eventually, you’re going to burn out with that kind of lifestyle. They may opt to come back someday. But it’s going to take some time.”

The struggle to fill job openings is not confined to lineworkers.

Columbia Rural Electric Association in Walla Walla, Washington, recently got just seven applicants for a Geographic Information Systems technician. The last time the co-op advertised for a GIS tech, it had five times that many, said Manager of Engineering Grant Glaus. The job pays more than $50,000 a year.

“It just seems like there’s a big supply of jobs right now, so the demand we’re seeing from job applicants is down,” Glaus said.

High demand for warehouse workers nationwide has also had an impact on co-ops.

An entry-level warehouse job opening that pays $30 an hour attracted 20 job applicants instead of the 100 that Iffert expected.

“This is an industrywide problem that’s affecting investor-owned and public utilities, too,” he said. “I haven’t talked to anybody who is flooded with people banging on their door to be hired.”

The pandemic has also had an impact on hiring co-op CEOs and other senior staff, said Leigh Taylor, director of management services for NRECA Executive Search.

Early in the pandemic, she said, CEOs who had been thinking about moving to other co-ops turned down those opportunities because they didn’t want to leave their existing co-ops during an uncertain time.

“That loyalty was definitely a reflection of who we are as co-ops,” Taylor said.

As things got better, many CEOs who had been planning to retire in a few years opted to do it right away, creating more openings to be filled, she said. More than 225 co-op general managers and other top executives started within the last two years.

The key to finding new leaders may demand that co-op directors look beyond “a 40-year-old version of their beloved, long-serving CEO who is retiring,” Taylor said.

“I ask boards, ‘what competencies do you want in your next leader to meet the needs of your cooperative in the coming years? And if that looks different than what you’ve had before, be open to hiring someone with different skills.’”

Erin Kelly is a staff writer for NRECA.

Jackson Energy Cooperative wins Beautify the Bluegrass Governor’s Award

The restoration of Beattyville City Park by volunteers from Jackson Energy Cooperative has been named the winner of the 2021 Beautify the Bluegrass Governor’s Award by Governor Andy Beshear and Kentucky Electric Cooperatives.

More than 45 Jackson Energy Cooperative employees volunteered 630-man-hours over a two-day span to help restore the Beattyville City Park after it was submerged and devastated by historic flooding earlier this year. The park was left in total disarray and was no longer safe for children in the community. The flood waters left behind damaged fencing, broken equipment and mounds of sand that covered everything from the top of the slides to the gutters on the shelter.

Under the guidance of Beattyville Mayor Scott Jackson, Jackson Energy Cooperative employees worked alongside several City of Beattyville employees to reconstruct the required safety fall-zone around each piece of play equipment, shoveled tons of sand and a truckload of mulch, repaired fencing, pressure-washed the play equipment and shelter building, revitalized the landscaping and added a final touch of paint.

“I am proud to partner with Kentucky’s electric cooperatives to support homegrown beautification efforts across the commonwealth and appreciate the cooperative spirit of Beautify the Bluegrass,” Beshear said in a video posted on his social media channels. “When we say “Team Kentucky,” this is what we’re talking about, Kentuckians who care about their communities and take action to help. All of the projects deserve recognition, and the work by these volunteers truly exemplifies concern for community. I am so pleased to present Jackson Energy Cooperative with the 2021 Beautify the Bluegrass Governor’s Award.”

“The employees of Jackson Energy understand the importance of a strong community and we are committed to doing our part,” says Carol Wright, president and CEO of Jackson Energy. “It was our privilege to work alongside the leaders of Beattyville-Lee County to restore their city park and to give a vital piece of their community back to them. When given the opportunity to give back, we are ready to make a positive impact for the families we call neighbors.”

Kentuckians voted for their favorite project on from among six finalists:
• McDougal Lake Trail Cleanup and Beautification (Hodgenville) – Knob Creek Conservancy
• Ohio County Park amphitheater stage reconstruction (Hartford) – Big Rivers Electric Corporation volunteers
• Lake Liberty transformation (Liberty) – Liberty Tourism and Trail Town Task Force
• The Monarch Mural (Franklin) – Franklin-Simpson Garden Club and volunteers
• Beattyville City Park restoration (Beattyville) – Jackson Energy volunteers and City of Beattyville
• Leslie County Community Canoe Cleanup (Leslie County, Middle Fork Kentucky River) – Organized by Kammy, Wyatt, Gabriella, and Jackson Ostrander, community volunteers

Kentucky Electric Cooperatives, the statewide association of Kentucky’s 26 locally owned and operated electric cooperatives, joined the “Beautify the Bluegrass” effort in 2018, in partnership with the Governor’s Office, because the initiative’s goals align with the cooperatives’ mission to improve quality of life in the communities they serve.

“Cooperatives are led by, belong to and were built by the communities we serve,” says Chris Perry, president and CEO of Kentucky Electric Cooperatives. “Our member co-ops are excited to partner with Gov. Beshear to recognize Kentuckians who roll up their sleeves and complete beautification projects because they care about their community.”

More than 160 Kentucky co-op personnel and contractors in Louisiana

Kentucky co-op crews helping restore power in Louisiana are sharing photos of their experience and the devastation left behind by Hurricane Ida 11 days ago.

The photos show homes and businesses destroyed by winds exceeding 100 miles-per-hour, power restoration efforts in swampy marshlands and Louisiana residents thanking the line technicians for their dedication and hard work.

In addition to more than 120 contractors released by Kentucky co-ops, more than 40 Kentucky co-op personnel are assisting DEMCO, an electric cooperative serving the Greater Baton Rouge area. The co-op reports 78 percent meter-restoration, with remaining outages of 23,911.

On social media, the co-op is reminding its members that restoration of the electric grid is a multi-step process after a severe storm such as Hurricane Ida. “Major transmission must be restored in order to distribute large amounts of power through Louisiana, along with replacing hundreds of power poles and thousands of miles of power lines in hard to reach areas. Mutual assistance crews are here helping, but this is a lengthy process,” the co-op reported.

The Kentucky mutual aid response includes co-op crews from Fleming-Mason Energy, Kenergy Corp, Nolin RECC and the co-op’s Wide Open Utility Service subsidiary, Shelby Energy and South Kentucky RECC.

Photo: Nolin RECC

“The damage is extensive and devastating,” says Charlie Lewis, the mutual aid coordinator for Kentucky Electric Cooperatives. “Kentucky co-op crews are working long hours in very challenging conditions. In addition to a tremendous amount of debris and big jobs to replace hundreds of utility poles, the crews face hot and humid conditions with occasional thunderstorms. The people of Louisiana have been so gracious and grateful for the help our crews are providing. We continue to pray for everyone’s safety and for power to be restored as quickly as safety protocols allow.”

DEMCO powers 113,500+ meters that serve about a half million people in seven parishes: Ascension, East Baton Rouge, East Feliciana, Livingston, St. Helena, West Feliciana, and Tangipahoa. The co-op has more than 250 employees.

Coordinated by Kentucky Electric Cooperatives, mutual aid crews from Kentucky co-ops are deployed to specific sister cooperatives who have requested their help. On daily conference calls, safety teams from each state assess optimal deployments. 

The top priority of each local Kentucky co-op is service to its own consumer-members.  Before committing resources to mutual aid requests, each co-op ensures it has ample crews available for all local needs, including routine maintenance and emergencies. 

In addition, Kentucky-based United Utility Supply Cooperative has reached out to cooperative distributors in the region to offer its assistance of material and supplies.

Because the national network of transmission and distribution infrastructure owned by electric cooperatives is built to federal standards, line crews from any co-op in America can arrive on the scene ready to provide emergency support, secure in their knowledge of the system’s engineering.

Hurricane Ida: Tracking the Co-op Response

While electric cooperative crews have worked long, grueling hours clearing trees, dragging brush, setting poles and stringing lines to restore electricity to communities ravaged by Hurricane Ida, full restoration could still be weeks away in parts of Louisiana.

Washington-St. Tammany Electric anticipates having everyone who can accept power fully restored within three weeks,” wrote officials from the Mandeville-based co-op in a weekend social media post.

WSTE has 650 broken poles and miles of downed conductor to replace, but with the help of hundreds of co-op mutual aid crews and contractors, the co-op has restored power to all but about 8,000 of its 52,000 meters.

“Lines with the largest number of members requiring the least amount of time will be restored first,” the co-op advised members. All seven transmission delivery points and 33 substations on its system are now energized, and distribution points are now the focus of restoration work.

“We must go from the source outward to the end,” said WSTE General Manager Charles Hill, comparing the systematic approach standard for power restoration to the design of a coin purse, wider at the bottom than at the drawstring securing the top.

“Groups will be energized before individuals,” wrote Hill, adding that crews will be shifted to other areas in need of help once work is completed, and service crews will ultimately be deployed to restore individual connections and smaller groups.

Off-road rights of way, cutting through muddy forested areas and marshland, continue to present challenges for crews working to restore power across south Louisiana.

With the help of 800 line technicians, vegetation management and support personnel, Dixie Electric Membership Corp. is battling back from near total system failure and now has 75% of its meters back in service.

“Transmission and distribution infrastructure were severely damaged or obliterated,” co-op officials wrote Monday. The Greenwell Springs-based co-op has 29,000 members still without power and is offering projections of a few days to up to four weeks for various parts of its service territory, contingent upon damage, accessibility and whether homes can safely receive power.

“Restoration estimates are based on knowledge we have at this time,” officials cautioned. “Unforeseen challenges are always possible and may alter these predictions.”

Where possible, the co-op is now rerouting power from other points to help get members back online. Up to 400 of its damaged poles still need to be replaced.

Electric co-ops serving the region receive their power from transmission systems operated by other utilities actively working to rebuild structural steel towers toppled by the Category 4 storm’s 150 mph-plus winds. The transmission providers continue to beef up their restoration efforts, and with most damage assessments completed, transmission repairs are expected to be wrapped up by midweek.

“Without transmission we will not be able to energize any lines, this is out of SLECA’s control,” said Joe Ticheli, general manager of Houma-based South Louisiana Electric Cooperative Association. “We continue to ask for your patience during this long ordeal.”

But with 1,100 contract and mutual aid co-op personnel on the ground across its service territory, SLECA’s largest-ever restoration effort is in full swing.

“Crews are setting poles, stringing wire, removing debris and rebuilding SLECA’s electric infrastructure that took over 83 years to build, across two parishes,” Ticheli said. “Even with the progress being made and the army of ‘boots on the ground,’ it will be a long process.”

More than 19,000 of SLECA’s 21,000 meters were out in the hours after the storm. Some of the most challenging restoration work is still ahead, with more than 17,000 meters still out, over 1,000 broken distribution poles being replaced and tracked vehicles being used in off-road areas.

The Association of Louisiana Electric Cooperatives continues to coordinate mutual aid crews and is working to address fuel, lodging and logistics issues for visiting crews and contractors.

“Preparations are gearing up to fill a second round of mutual aid requests aimed at replacing out-of- state crews initially committed to assignments lasting up to two weeks,” said Addie Armato, acting CEO of the statewide association. “We are also working with our mutual aid partners to help locate and source materials that are hard to find.”

While most co-ops in Mississippi completed restoration work last week, Summit-based Magnolia Electric Power Association was still finishing repairs Tuesday, though outages were down to less than 200 of its 35,200 meters. Restoration is expected to formally conclude Wednesday, but local crews could spend weeks collecting broken poles and other debris and making permanent repairs to co-op infrastructure.

Derrill Holly is a staff writer for NRECA.

2021 Beautify the Bluegrass finalists

The partnership of Kentucky Electric Cooperatives and the Governor’s office encourages Kentuckians to come together and enhance areas in their local communities. Kentuckians can vote for their favorite project on September 6 – 17. Beautify the Bluegrass winners will be announced on on September 27.

“Again this year, Kentuckians have inspired us with their projects,” said Governor Beshear. “And a special shout out to the local electric cooperatives who have led the way. When we say “Team Kentucky,” this is what we’re talking about, Kentuckians who care about their communities and take action to help.”

Congratulations to this year’s finalists:

  • McDougal Lake Trail Cleanup and Beautification (Hodgenville) – Knob Creek Conservancy
  • Ohio County Park amphitheater stage reconstruction (Hartford) – Big Rivers Electric Corporation volunteers
  • Lake Liberty transformation (Liberty) – Liberty Tourism and Trail Town Task Force
  • The Monarch Mural (Franklin) – Franklin-Simpson Garden Club and volunteers
  • Beattyville City Park restoration (Beattyville) – Jackson Energy volunteers and City of Beattyville
  • Leslie County Community Canoe Cleanup (Leslie County, Middle Fork Kentucky River) – Organized by Kammy, Wyatt, Gabriella, and Jackson Ostrander, community volunteers

Tennessee Co-op Suffers Losses but Works to Restore Power After Flooding

An electric cooperative that lost an office, several vehicles and equipment to Tennessee’s deadly floods over the weekend continues to restore power in its hard-hit service territory.

More than 17 inches of rain fell in a matter of six hours Saturday in Middle Tennessee, causing widespread catastrophic flooding that destroyed homes, swept away vehicles and claimed at least 20 lives, with dozens more people still missing.

“Within a matter of five to six minutes, homes were flooded all the way to the attic,” said Keith Carnahan, president and CEO of Centerville-based Meriwether Lewis Electric Cooperative. “The creeks just couldn’t hold that much water and got beyond their banks very quickly.”

Meriwether Lewis EC’s Humphreys district office and service center are located on one of the flooded creeks, and the offices, warehouse and shops at that location quickly filled with muddy water and storm debris.

“We had three to four feet of water wash through our buildings,” Carnahan said Monday. “We still haven’t found one of our vehicles, and the bucket trucks and digger derricks stored there were flooded and will need to be repaired.

“All the transformers we had on hand were under water, so they will need to be returned to the manufacturer for testing.”

The flooded facility was the co-op’s largest, and upward of 20% of its total inventory has been damaged or destroyed, he added. “We’ve lost poles, cross arms and other materials. It all just floated away.”

Ditches and creeks across portions of Meriwether Lewis Electric Cooperative’s service territory were pushed beyond their banks by 17 inches of rainfall Saturday. (Photo By: Meriwether Lewis EC)

Flooding and high winds knocked out power to about 10,000 of the co-op’s 35,000 meters, but with mutual aid help from neighboring co-ops and contractors, only about 1,500 members were still without service Monday afternoon. Carnahan estimated that about one-third of the remaining outages were unlikely to be reconnected soon due to extensive damage or total property losses associated with those meters.

“We have employees who’ve suffered property damage and have also lost members of their extended families,” said Vanessa Clayborn, the co-op’s manager of member services. “Some of them fought through the floodwaters to get to the co-op’s offices so they could help restore power and keep their communities running.”

As of Monday, most hospitals, nursing homes and institutional assets being used for shelter and relief efforts across the co-op’s service territory had their power restored.

Meriwether Lewis EC’s Humphreys District Office had more than four feet of water in its service center and warehouse before flooding began to subside. (Photo By: Meriwether Lewis EC)

The co-op has shifted operations to its other four service centers and is not only working to restore electric service to affected members but is also trying to re-establish broadband connections that were lost as a result of the flooding, equipment damage and power outages.

“These are hard times, but under these conditions, the dedication that co-ops have for their communities really shines through,” said Clayborn. “Electricity and dependable communications are what people need right now, and we’re doing all we can to make sure they have services or get them back as quickly as possible.”

Derrill Holly is a staff writer for NRECA.

Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill Includes Billions for Broadband, EVs, Energy R&D

bipartisan infrastructure bill approved Tuesday by the Senate would provide billions of dollars for electric cooperative priorities, including broadband deployment, electric vehicle charging networks and development of energy storage, carbon capture and other clean energy technologies.

The bill must still be taken up by the House, which is in recess but could be called back to vote on the legislation.

“Investing in our energy infrastructure is vital to ensuring that electric cooperatives can continue to do what they do best: provide reliable, affordable power to 42 million Americans,” said Louis Finkel, NRECA’s senior vice president of Government Relations. “Passage of this bill is a great start. We’ll continue to work with Congress to press for more co-op priorities to be included in the bigger infrastructure packages that lawmakers are expected to take up later this year.”

The $550 billion bill does not include the Flexible Financing for Rural America Act, which would allow co-ops to save a total of more than $10 billion by repricing their existing Rural Utilities Service debt at current low interest rates without prepayment penalties. It also does not include legislation to provide co-ops with direct federal payments to develop renewable energy and battery storage projects.

Inclusion of those proposals was hampered by the absence of tax or agriculture sections. NRECA will continue to push for those two top priorities to be included in separate infrastructure legislation expected to be considered later this year.

Among the Senate-passed bill’s key provisions benefiting co-ops:

• Broadband: Provides $65 billion to connect rural communities and low-income urban residents with high-speed internet service. This includes $42.5 billion for a broadband grant program administered by the states. Co-ops would be eligible to participate in the program, and funds could be used for deployment and mapping projects to show which communities need service most.

• Electric vehicles: Authorizes $7.5 billion for EV charging infrastructure. The money goes to the states to partner with co-ops and other businesses to create charging networks. The bill also provides $2.5 billion for zero-emission school buses. Some co-ops have partnered with local school districts to help bring electric school buses to their communities, and this money could assist those efforts.

• Energy research and development: Authorizes billions to explore clean energy technologies to reduce carbon dioxide emissions.

• Carbon capture: Provides $3.5 billion for large-scale carbon-capture projects, including two demonstration projects each at coal-fired power plants and natural gas-fired power plants. It also authorizes $2.2 billion to enable the capture of more carbon emissions by building storage infrastructure, including wells and pipelines.

• Wind and solar: Boosts renewable energy by providing $400 million for research and development into wind energy and $320 million for solar energy.

• Energy storage: Provides $355 million for pilot projects that explore the potential of energy storage. An additional $150 million would go toward an initiative that focuses on long-duration storage.

Erin Kelly is a staff writer for NRECA.

NRECA International Uses Drones to Improve Electric Service in Bangladesh

NRECA International is using drones for the first time as it helps a government-owned electric utility in Bangladesh improve its efficiency and boost customer satisfaction.

Two drones are being deployed by NRECA International to help develop a geographic information system for the Northern Electricity Supply Co. Ltd. The distribution utility is based in Rajshahi, near the Indian border.

The GIS that NRECA International is developing will create an interactive database of the electric distribution system, which serves about 1.5 million consumers through 65 substations and more than 9,000 miles of electric line. The drones will capture images of the distribution system, houses, farms and commercial buildings served by the utility.

A GIS will not only show where distribution infrastructure and consumers are located, it will store detailed data such as pole size, date of purchase, date of installation and condition.

The goal of the two-year project is to provide NESCO with a comprehensive GIS network management system. That will help the utility analyze its performance to operate more efficiently, improve its financial situation, and monitor and enhance the quality of service to raise customer satisfaction, said ATM Selim, NRECA International’s team leader on the project.

NESCO is renovating and expanding its existing distribution system, he said.

“The use of drone technology will ensure the completeness and correctness of the GIS data that will be collected as a part of the project,” Selim said. “NESCO will be able to operate its business more effectively with the help of the database. This will help to improve the service quality for its customers.”

NRECA International hired drone operators, which deployed the 2-pound drones on June 19. They have been able to capture images of about 35 square miles during a four-week period.

There have been major challenges along the way, including a countrywide lockdown in June and July due to the rapid spread of COVID-19, heavy rainfall and restricted flyover zones. However, Selim said the team expects to finish its drone work after four additional weeks.

“The images are in excellent condition and are playing a very important role in the survey of electric poles and in identifying buildings in the area,” he said. The drones have also helped speed up data collection.

Without drones, data is typically collected in the field using GPS satellite technology to build digital maps. Information can also be gathered from traditional photographs, books, newspapers and government publications and databases.

“The team is always looking for more inventive ways to collect better data that can help them provide more accurate analyses and information to help our partners in different countries,” said Dan Waddle, senior vice president of NRECA International, which does GIS work in several nations across the globe. “We will use this new drone experience in Bangladesh to determine whether drones could be used effectively in other countries.”

Erin Kelly is a staff writer for NRECA.

NERC: Summer Heat Could Disrupt Power Supplies in West, Midwest, New England

Above-average temperatures this summer will increase the risk of electricity emergencies in the West, especially Texas and California, and challenge reliability in the Upper Midwest and New England, according to the nation’s grid watchdog. 

The North American Electric Reliability Corp. in its “2021 Summer Reliability Assessment” predicts extreme heat will drive demand nationwide and elevate the potential for power disruptions as air conditioning use chomps electricity.

Texas in particular will be ripe for shortages despite increasing its on-peak reserve margins from 12.9% to 15.3% last year with 7,858 megawatts of wind, solar and battery storage, NERC said. The assessment notes that “[with] a significant portion of electricity supply coming from wind generation, operators must have sufficient flexible resources to cover periods of low-wind output.”

NERC also finds California, a huge energy importer, at risk for disruptions this summer even during normal peak demand periods as additions to its energy supply have largely been solar, which may not be available to serve heightened demand. Periods of above-normal demand in the West will place the state at a high risk for energy emergencies, the report states. 

“As the grid transforms and weather-dependent resources become increasingly important to maintaining the real-time supply for electricity, the bulk power system becomes more vulnerable,” said John Moura, NERC director of reliability assessment and performance analysis.

“Above-average seasonal temperatures, such as those predicted for this summer, can contribute to high peak demand and impact the availability of generation resources and imports from neighboring areas,” he said. “This means that it is especially important for the electric industry to ensure the committed resource mix can support a variety of abnormal conditions.”

NERC said the Midcontinent Independent System Operator in the Midwest and ISO-New England have sufficient resources to meet projected peak needs, but above-normal demand will likely outstrip capacity. That means supplies will need to be tapped from outside areas.

“All other areas have sufficient resources to manage normal summer peak demand and are at low risk of energy shortfalls from more extreme demand or generation outage conditions,” the assessment said.

Cathy Cash is a staff writer for NRECA.

Meredith to head safety efforts in Kentucky

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (June 29, 2021) – In his 30th year working either as an electrical lineman or supporting the safety of linemen, Randy Meredith has been named Director of Safety & Training at Kentucky Electric Cooperatives, the statewide association supporting the 26 electric co-ops in the commonwealth.

In this new role, Meredith leads a team of three Safety & Loss Prevention Instructors and is accountable for leading training programs to comply with applicable federal, state and local legislation and codes. The safety team helps cooperatives’ compliance personnel with regulatory issues including OSHA, FEMA, FMCSA, DOT, EPA, PSC, NESC and NEC. Additional responsibilities include accident investigations, RESAP administration, crew audits and mutual aid storm coordination for the cooperatives.

“My desire is that our Safety and Loss Prevention department becomes best in class,” Meredith says. “Kentucky co-ops are committed to safety, and we pledge excellence in training, preparedness and expertise. I was already proud to be a part of the statewide association’s exemplary statewide team. Charlie Lewis and Tony Dempsey are the best colleagues one could ask for and they are instrumental to the ongoing safety improvements at Kentucky co-ops.”

Meredith began his co-op career in 1992 as a lineman at Warren RECC, where he later became operations supervisor during his 16 years at the co-op. After four years in a supervisory role with the Davis H. Elliot company, Meredith returned to the cooperative family working first in safety and compliance at Nolin RECC then as superintendent of line design. In August 2019, he joined the statewide association staff.

“Randy’s entire career has demonstrated a commitment to safety and the wellbeing of co-op crews and co-op members,” says Chris Perry, president and CEO of Kentucky Electric Cooperatives. “His dedication to safety goals and innovative approach to effectively communicating safety lessons is an asset to Kentucky’s electric cooperative program.”

Meredith lives in Bee Spring with his wife, Javonica. They have three grown children.