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Mutual Aid Teams Restore Power After Devastating Windstorms

By |2021-08-20T09:23:39-04:00August 19th, 2021|MECA News|

More than 864,000 Michigan households were left without power last week after multiple rounds of severe windstorms rolled through the state. Gusts of up to 104 mph leveled hundreds of trees and launched trampolines and other debris into the branches of those left standing.

MECA Safety Director, Joe McElroy, was stranded at a Safety Summit conference in Florida when the calls for mutual aid started rolling in early Wednesday morning, Aug. 11.

“I tried getting on a standby flight back home but ended up managing the storm from the airport and my hotel room,” he recalls. “Thankfully, we’ve all gotten pretty good at working remotely over the past year, so it was pretty seamless.”

McElroy described the mutual aid event as one of the most challenging in his career.

“We experienced five back-to-back windstorms in a short, three-day period,” he explains. “We had to deploy three waves of mutual aid crews to help get things under control.”

Altogether, three utilities requested help, including Great Lakes Energy, Cherryland Electric Cooperative and the City of Sturgis.

Fourteen Michigan cooperative and municipal utilities sent aid, as well as Rock Falls municipal utility out of Illinois.

Crews worked around the clock to restore outages only to have their progress wiped out by another storm the following day. Numerous members experienced multiple power disruptions.

Great Lakes Energy restored over 70,000 outages with the help of 70 additional lineworkers on their system.

“It was a well-coordinated effort, and our members certainly appreciate the mutual aid assistance we received,” said Great Lakes Energy CEO, Bill Scott.

The City of Sturgis was hardest-hit by the final storm. The municipal utility received mutual aid support from 70 additional journeymen, apprentices, tree trimmers and operators.

Cherryland Electric Cooperative experienced over 15,000 outages during the event, its first major storm since implementing a new text outage system.

“The new text system drastically reduced our call center volume and visits to our online outage map,” said Cherryland Member Relations Manager, Rachel Johnson. “Our analytics show that members definitely prefer text messages and Facebook updates for storm communications.”

The new system kept Cherryland members informed with nearly 51,000 text message updates.

Thanks to the commitment and responsiveness of our statewide mutual aid network teams, all cooperative and municipal power systems affected by the storms were fully restored by Aug. 18.

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Michigan Co-ops Participate in the 2021 NRECA Legislative Conference

By |2021-04-22T15:36:11-04:00April 22nd, 2021|MECA News|

More than 1,500 electric cooperative leaders from across the country participated in the NRECA Legislative Conference this week (April 20-23). While the annual conference typically includes a full schedule of in-person meetings with members of Congress in their Washington, D.C. offices, ongoing coronavirus restrictions required all appointments to be held virtually this year.

Michigan used two teams of managers, staff and directors to deliver the co-op message on priority issues. Team members included: Tony Anderson and Gabe Schneider (Cherryland Electric Cooperative); Tom Sobeck and Sandy Borowicz (Presque Isle Electric & Gas Co-op); Chris O’Neill, Brandon Trierweiler, and John Lord (HomeWorks Tri-County Electric Cooperative); Dallas Braun (Thumb Electric Cooperative); Craig Borr, Doug Snitgen, Katie Deller, Lindsay Elsholz, and Casey Clark (MECA). Louis Finkel, Kelly Wismer, Hill Thomas, and Bridgette Bourge (NRECA) also participated in several meetings.

The teams’ schedules included virtual meetings with Sen. Gary Peters, and Reps. John Moolenaar, Jack Bergman, Tim Walberg, and Fred Upton, as well as with legislative staff for the offices of Sen. Debbie Stabenow and Reps. Peter Meijer, Debbie Dingell, Bill Huizenga, Dan Kildee, Lisa McClain, and Elissa Slotkin.

Co-op representatives stressed three advocacy priorities at the meetings, asking members of Congress to:

  • Cosponsor and pass the Flexible Financing for Rural America Act (H.R. 2244 / S. 978), which would allow co-ops to refinance Rural Utilities Service (RUS) loans to current low-interest rates.
  • Promote advanced energy technology by allowing co-op access to tax incentives.
  • Promote rural broadband expansion with targeted federal funding to unserved and underserved communities

“It’s best when we can build these relationships in-person,” said Craig Borr, MECA President/CEO, “But, we were able to have meaningful and productive virtual meetings with our policymakers, and the feedback has been very positive.”

More information about the NRECA Legislative Conference, including full Fact Sheets for each of the priority issues, can be found at cooperative.com

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Filling A Gap: Michigan Co-ops Bring Electric Vehicle Chargers to Rural Communities

By |2021-02-18T10:05:43-05:00February 9th, 2021|Uncategorized|

The remote town of Onaway, Michigan—population 880—is not an obvious pick to install a new electric vehicle (EV) charging station. While most EV charging stations today are in urban areas or along expressways, Michigan’s electric cooperatives are planning for a different future. Placing chargers in rural areas will allow EV drivers to visit smaller communities, while providing a boost to local economies.

Michigan’s electric co-ops began deploying EV charging stations several years ago. Notable milestones include when Presque Isle Electric & Gas Co-op (PIE&G) installed the first co-op public charger at Tom’s Family Market in Onaway (2017), and when Cherryland Electric Cooperative partnered with Blain’s Farm & Fleet in Traverse City to install the first Level 3 DC Fast Charger in Northern Michigan (2020).

This year, PIE&G and Great Lakes Energy plan to add 54 additional public EV charging stations throughout rural Michigan.

Presque Isle Electric & Gas Co-op

PIE&G is set to deploy over 50 EV charging stations. The co-op’s new headquarters building will include 15 chargers total—12 (Level 1) for employee charging and three (Level 2) for member and guest parking. PIE&G is also collaborating with member organizations to install 36 high-power Level 2 stations across its service territory.

“We view the deployment of EV charging stations in northeast Michigan as a two-pronged approach to growth,” explains PIE&G CEO Tom Sobeck. “First, the presence of charging stations makes the purchase of an EV more attractive to our members. They’ll be able to take trips with less anxiety as the charging stations will provide some reassurance that a re-charge is available.  Secondly, it opens our region to tourists who own EVs. Both cases promote the use of EVs in our region and enhance the area’s economic prospects.”

Not long after their EV station in Onaway was energized, PIE&G installed the next two charging stations at  Briley Township Park in Atlanta and at Albert Township Park in Lewiston. For the remainder of their installations, PIE&G will give priority consideration to education and health care facilities, grocery stores, parks, and locations along major travel routes. EV drivers will be able to add as much as 60 miles of range per hour plugged in, depending on the vehicle, while dining at a restaurant or shopping in town.

Great Lakes Energy

Great Lakes Energy will unveil a new charging depot in Scottsville this spring. The depot will house 4 Level 3 DC Fast-Chargers in close proximity to its co-op facility along U.S. Highway 10.

It’s an ideal location for people traveling from Grand Rapids, Holland or Muskegon to get a charge on their way up to Traverse City, Petoskey or even Mackinaw City. A short 30-minute stop at the charging depot will supply drivers with an 80% charge.

“It’s part of our mission to embrace new technology,” said Brett Streby, communications and marketing manager for Great Lakes Energy. “There are many benefits of electric vehicles that pique the interest of our members. As an electric co-op, we want to foster that interest and help with the initiative.”

The cost to bring these new EV chargers to rural Michigan was partially funded by the Wolverine Power Cooperative economic development fund and a grant from the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE).

By expanding the state’s EV charging network in communities throughout rural Michigan, co-ops hope to improve environmental health, economic development and quality of life.

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MECA Helps Produce PIE&G Virtual Annual Meeting

By |2020-10-29T14:33:38-04:00October 29th, 2020|Uncategorized|

Presque Isle Electric & Gas Co-op (PIE&G) continued the recent trend by holding its 83rd Annual Membership Meeting as a live, online event. The meeting was live streamed from the co-op headquarters building in Onaway via Zoom video conference. A multi-camera setup allowed directors in attendance to stay 6-feet apart and only remove face coverings when presenting.

“This was a really creative solution,” said PIE&G President/CEO, Tom Sobeck. “We were able to honor the spirit of our Annual Meeting, while keeping within COVID-19 safety guidelines.”

Sobeck provided a co-op update during his CEO message and answered questions submitted by members regarding construction progress on PIE&G’s new headquarters facility, expansion of natural gas service, Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI), Fiber-To-The-Home (FTTH) high-speed internet, and paperless billing. Member questions were collected during the online registration process, with the most common being selected for discussion during the online event.

PIE&G approached MECA for help with its plan to hold the virtual annual meeting. MECA quickly agreed to fill the behind-the-scenes technical role with its live production equipment and in-house technical expertise.

“It looked like a TV station had moved into our board room,” said Board Chairman, Allan Berg. “We were really impressed with how MECA helped us produce the meeting, and how professional the final result looked.”

Chairman Berg (Presque Isle District) was among three incumbent directors elected to a 3-year term (2020-2023) at the annual meeting. The other successful directors were John Brown (Cheboygan District) and Charles Arbour (Montmorency District). Berg also facilitated the virtual annual meeting, along with co-op attorney, Michael Ekdahl.

Members gave the online event high marks in a follow-up survey and indicated that they would be likely to attend future virtual meetings, if the co-op were to hold them. Many members that participated in the virtual event had never attended a PIE&G Annual Meeting in-person before.

“COVID-19 has disrupted the way we conduct business, but this Annual Meeting was also an opportunity to engage with members in a new way,” said Sobeck. “We really appreciate the effort MECA put into helping us film and produce this event.”

A full recording of the Annual Meeting is available at PIEG.COM

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$16 Billion Rural Broadband Auction Kicks Off

By |2020-10-28T14:19:07-04:00October 28th, 2020|Uncategorized|

190 Electric Co-ops Among Qualified Bidders

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has released the list of qualifying bidders and a map of available territories for the upcoming Rural Digital Opportunity Fund auction. This $16 billion auction opens up the opportunity to extend broadband to these rural areas of electric and telephone cooperatives, consortiums, and other local community-based entities. The auction is expected to lead to the expansion of high-speed internet service to more than 5 million unserved homes and businesses across the country, including more than 250,000 locations in Michigan. Only Texas and California have more locations available in the auction.

Six Michigan cooperatives participated in the auction including Cloverland, Great Lakes Energy (Truestream), HomeWorks Tri-County, Midwest Energy & Communications, Presque Isle Electric & Gas Co-op and Thumb Electric Cooperative. Nationwide, 190 electric cooperatives are among the 396 qualified bidders, although most electric co-ops are bidding as part of a consortium.

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai called the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund auction “our biggest and boldest step yet” to bring broadband to unserved rural areas.

Winning bidders will receive funds over a 10-year period to deploy broadband to the unserved census blocks. The auction requires providers to deliver minimum speeds of 25 megabits per second for downloads and 3 Mbps for uploads. It will use a weighted tier system and rules advocated by the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association to determine who is awarded each area.

Once the auction concludes, the commission will release the auction results, including identifying which bidders won support and which areas were awarded. Areas awarded other government broadband grants, such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Utilities Service ReConnect awards, are not eligible to receive funding in this auction.

For the map of available areas, click here.

For the list of qualified bidders, click here.

For more on state-by-state eligibility, click here. 

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Co-op Annual Meetings Go Virtual

By |2020-06-22T10:15:09-04:00June 22nd, 2020|MECA News|

From social distancing to face coverings, the coronavirus pandemic has forced the world to adapt to new ways of doing things. For many cooperatives, this includes creative solutions for the annual membership meeting.

Earlier this month, Cherryland Electric Cooperative and Alger Delta Cooperative Electric Assn. held virtual annual meetings online—a first for both co-ops.

Incumbent directors Tom Van Pelt and David Schweitzer were reelected at the Cherryland meeting. Eleven percent of Cherryland’s members voted in the election—70% of the votes were cast online and 30% were mail-in ballots.

The event was live-streamed with multiple camera angles on Facebook and YouTube, but only board members with a speaking role were able to attend in person. Members were encouraged to submit their questions on the social platforms, while directors in attendance stayed 6-feet apart and only removed face coverings when speaking at the podium.

“We’ve live-streamed previous annual meetings using a phone, but the upgraded technology setup we used this year will enable us to broadcast an enhanced live-stream in future years,” said Rachel Johnson, Cherryland’s member services manager.

Incumbent directors Ivy Netzel, Kirk Bruno and Ray Young were seated at the Alger Delta meeting. The event was live broadcast via Zoom webinar, with each director attending on separate devices at the co-op office in order to maintain a safe social distance. Members were invited to submit questions via the Zoom platform.

Both co-ops expressed a preference for in-person annual meetings, but lessons learned from this year’s virtual events could help make annual meetings more accessible for co-op members in the future.

“We hope to do a hybrid approach next year,” said Amanda Seger, Alger Delta’s CFO. “We want to get back to in-person, but adding a virtual option just makes sense.”

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Electric Co-ops Suspend Disconnects

By |2020-04-21T11:44:12-04:00April 17th, 2020|Uncategorized|

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Michigan electric cooperatives have temporarily suspended disconnection of delinquent electric and gas accounts. While not required, all Michigan co-ops have agreed to abide by a non-disconnect affirmation that largely mirrors a Michigan Public Service Commission (MPSC) order which directs investor-owned utilities to suspend disconnects and waive late fees until June 1.

However, this effort to support member-consumers in crisis is not a bill waiver. Co-ops will continue to work with delinquent members on deferred payment plans and other assistance. NRECA also believes there is a strong possibility that Congress may tie future energy relief dollars to co-ops participating in statewide moratoriums.

By signing the non-disconnect affirmation, electric cooperatives confirm that the following minimum protections are in place for vulnerable customers related to bill payment, disconnection of service, and reconnection of service:

  1. Protections for Michigan’s low-income customers and seniors – Suspend disconnections for Michigan’s most vulnerable populations, low-income and senior customers, through June 1, 2020, and waive late fees for eligible low-income customers receiving energy assistance.
  2. Protections for customers medically affected by COVID-19 – Allow for customers exposed to, quarantined, or infected by COVID-19 to be eligible for an additional 30-day medical hold to suspend a disconnection service. The criteria and eligibility provisions for this medical hold are in addition to those set forth in Mich Admin Code, R 460.130.
  3. Restoration of electric and gas service – Waive deposits and reconnection fees for low-income customers, seniors, and customers experiencing financial hardship related to COVID-19 and seeking restoration of electric or natural gas service.
  4. Offer financial and customer assistance – Extend access to and flexibility of payment plans to customers financially impacted by COVID-19 and provide customer assistance personnel with the resources necessary to connect customers to available financial assistance and social service agencies.
  5. Safeguard customers and workforce employees – Safeguard customers and utility workers by limiting face-to-face contact through the closing of office lobbies, focusing efforts to provide emergency and critical infrastructure-related activities, and adopting COVID-19 best practices as outlined by the State of Michigan and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

Suspending disconnects is one of many steps that co-ops have taken to reduce stress and provide local families and businesses with certainty during an uncertain time.

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Online Safety Training Resources Now Available

By |2020-04-17T15:08:42-04:00April 17th, 2020|MECA News|

MECA has launched a new online “Safety Shorts” video series for safety program partners during the COVID-19 crisis.

“Traditional classroom-style safety training is still the most effective approach,” says MECA safety director, Joe McElroy. “But we want to provide some meaningful safety resources until we can get back to meeting face-to-face.”

The short, focused videos are designed to keep safety issues fresh in the minds of operations employees. Each safety short includes a quick 8-10 minute video and talking points for guided discussion. Key operations supervisors and safety staff at each MECA safety partner utility have been given login access to review the material and share with their teams.

“In times of crisis, research shows that employees respond to safety information better when it comes from their supervisor,” explains Tom Ulatowski, MECA safety & loss control instructor. “We designed the program to ensure supervisors play an active role.”

Safety Shorts can be found under the “Safety & Mutual Aid” tab on the MECA website. New topics will be added regularly.

VIEW SAFETY SHORTS

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New Michigan Laws Clear Hurdles for Co-ops That Choose to Pursue Broadband

By |2020-03-17T14:30:21-04:00March 17th, 2020|MECA News|

Just as cooperatives electrified rural homes and businesses in the last century, they now play an essential role in bringing high-speed connectivity to rural America today.

The Michigan Legislature recently passed House Bills 4266 and 5266, which make it easier for electric co-ops to bring high-speed broadband access to their members.

Three of Michigan’s nine electric distribution co-ops (Midwest Energy & Communications, Great Lakes Energy and HomeWorks Tri-County Electric Cooperative) are currently deploying broadband, with two more co-ops (Presque Isle Electric & Gas Co-op and Thumb Electric Cooperative) actively studying its feasibility. The remaining distribution co-ops are planning or studying the use of fiber optic cable to improve electric service to member-owners and their communities.

Co-ops have used existing electric utility easements for broadband deployment in Michigan for the past five years. While there have been numerous cases in Michigan that support similar use, there have also been recent cautionary tales.

House Bill 4266 authorizes co-ops to deploy broadband infrastructure along existing electric easements, while House Bill 5266 offers consistent standards for pole attachments. Together, these bills are intended to encourage and enable electric co-ops to extend broadband access to rural areas, which will promote connectivity and create jobs.

This legislative change will ensure the uniform application of existing law, and ensure that Michigan’s electric co-ops can continue to use existing easements to extend broadband to homes and businesses in rural Michigan.

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MECA and Its Members Respond To COVID-19

By |2020-03-17T15:33:37-04:00March 17th, 2020|MECA News|

Mandatory shutdowns of schools, businesses and public gathering spaces related to the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic have had a significant impact on our personal and professional lives. But, through all the uncertainty and constantly-changing conditions, Michigan’s electric cooperatives have remained dedicated to keeping the power on.

Safety preparedness and response has always been a vital part of our energy industry, and member co-ops have taken appropriate precautionary measures to protect employees and help prevent the spread of the virus. Most MECA member co-ops have closed their lobbies, equipped employees to work from home, and canceled all non-essential business travel. Many are also asking employees to report personal travel and to impose self-quarantines for 14 days following any out-of-state travel.

Online collaboration platforms are becoming increasingly important as co-ops shift board meetings to virtual conferences and employees grapple with how to best communicate with each other remotely.

The entire member services team at Cherryland began working remotely at the beginning of this week. “It was a bit of a fire drill, but we got everyone set up on Microsoft Teams,” said Rachel Johnson, Cherryland’s member services manager. “We didn’t have time for proper training and we’re working through a learning curve, but it’s going to be a great tool for keeping the team organized and connected.”

MECA is also looking to help protect the health and safety of employees, as well as those the association serves. After careful consideration, MECA has temporarily suspended the delivery of traditional classroom safety training services, and all employees are working remotely.

This situation is fluid and changes quickly. MECA will begin hosting a weekly teleconference call with member CEOs each Friday to give member co-ops a forum to share and discuss issues related to COVID-19.

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Resource Alert

Amid the coronavirus pandemic, LinkedIn Learning has made courses on working from home (including training on Microsoft Teams) available for free.

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