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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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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.

ACCESS COURSES

Resource Alert

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

ACCESS COURSES
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Crews Spend Thanksgiving Battling Storm Aftermath

By |2019-12-18T10:25:16-05:00December 18th, 2019|MECA News|

No one invited winter storms Dorothy and Ezekiel to Thanksgiving, but they showed up anyway—leaving hundreds of thousands without power over the holiday.

While others were busy planning a holiday feast, MECA safety director and mutual aid coordinator, Joe McElroy, was keeping a close eye on the weather forecast. “Holidays and widespread storm outages seem to go hand-in-hand these days,” McElroy said.

Winter storm Dorothy arrived that Wednesday, bringing wet snow (nearly 24 inches in the U.P.) and 40 MPH winds. On Thanksgiving day, more than 325,000 homes and businesses in the Great Lakes region were left without power.

“The moisture content in the snow was as high as they have ever seen it,” said McElroy. “It froze to the lines and the trees.”

Mutual aid crews were assigned, and restoration was underway on Friday when winter storm Ezekiel showed up.

“We were down to just 40 restorations when the second storm hit,” said Troy Tiernan, operations manager at Alger Delta Cooperative. “It left nearly half our membership without power.”

In the U.P., winter storm Ezekiel brought another 28 inches of snow and whiteout conditions. “The roads were so bad that our crews were getting stuck, said Tiernan. “In some cases, the snow made it impossible to even get to the outage site.” Tiernan described the event as a historic storm for Alger Delta.

MECA exhausted all measures to help members bring the power back on as soon as possible. By Wednesday Dec. 4—a full week after the first storm began—power was finally restored to all members.

“It was the worst storm I’ve ever managed,” said McElroy. “It was call after call, text after text, voicemail after voicemail. The logistics were intense.”

Altogether, seven MECA Safety Partners requested help, including Alger Delta Cooperative, Cloverland Electric Cooperative, Great Lakes Energy, Marquette Board of Water & Light, Midwest Energy & Communications, Ontonagon REA, and Presque Isle Electric & Gas Co-op.

Many of the members who initially requested help were later deployed to help others once their own system was under control. Fifteen organizations sent help, including Cloverland Electric Cooperative, City of Escanaba, Great Lakes Energy, HomeWorks Tri-County Electric Cooperative, Cherryland Electric Cooperative, Wolverine Power Cooperative, Presque Isle Electric & Gas Co-op, Bay City Light & Power, Lansing Board of Water and Light, City of Niles, Mishawaka Utilities, multiple Wisconsin Cooperatives, and Dairyland Power Cooperative.

Restoring power in this type of event requires a tremendous amount of team effort. And, with the Christmas holiday right around the corner, you can bet McElroy and the mutual aid partners are monitoring the weather closely.

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Great Lakes Energy Hosts Washington Official

By |2019-11-06T15:33:56-05:00November 6th, 2019|MECA News|

Three northern Michigan electric cooperatives welcomed the Administrator of Rural Utilities Services (RUS), Chad Rupe, to Great Lakes Energy’s headquarters in Boyne City on Oct. 10.

Rupe visited the area from Washington, D.C. to meet with and learn more about the work of the three local electric cooperatives who all receive loan funding through RUS. Officials from the USDA Rural Development office and the RUS State Director from Missouri also joined in the visit.

Great Lakes Energy’s Chief Executive Officer, Bill Scott, provided information about each of the three co-ops, including Cloverland Electric Cooperative headquartered in Sault Ste. Marie and Alger Delta Electric headquartered in Gladstone.

Scott noted different challenges faced by each co-op and their leveraging of economic development loans and resources to boost local businesses and each area’s economy.

Scott Blecke, Great Lakes Energy’s Vice President of Engineering, spoke of the difficulty of growing and evolving in rural areas without an adequate communications network. He referred to Truestream, the fiber internet service Great Lakes Energy is rolling out to its members, adding that, “Seventy percent of our footprint is unserved by internet other than satellite.”

Rupe observed that co-ops are central to the community, just like a bank or post office. He noted their mission aligns with that of the RUS administration and added that current economic development initiatives co-ops are undertaking, such as delivering high-speed fiber internet services, will provide viability to the communities co-ops serve for future generations.

Pictured above: Great Lakes Energy hosts Chad Rupe, Administrator of Rural Utilities Services (RUS), at their headquarters in Boyne City. Pictured, front row – Shari Culver (Great Lakes Energy), Traci Smith (USDA), Jeff Smith (RUS), Shaun Lamp (Great Lakes Energy), Bill Scott (Great Lakes Energy), Chad Rupe (RUS Administrator), John Fettig (Great Lakes Energy), Mike Heise (Cloverland). Back row – Tom Harrell (Alger Delta), Jason Allen (USDA), Scott Blecke (Great Lakes Energy), Steve Drake  (Great Lakes Energy), Aaron Wallin (Cloverland), Pat Sarve (RUS).

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MEC Hits 10,000 High-Speed Fiber Internet Customer Milestone

By |2019-06-11T10:45:40-04:00June 11th, 2019|MECA News|

June marks a huge milestone in the southwest Michigan rural broadband revolution as Midwest Energy & Communications (MEC) installs its 10,000th high-speed fiber internet customer.

In 2015, MEC launched a five-year plan to deploy fiber internet across its southwest Michigan service territory, leveraging the investment in the two-way fiber communications infrastructure on its distribution system to make the best available high-speed option available to all electric customers. Residents in much of the country’s rural space remain unserved and underserved with true high-speed options, and MEC has established a model and approach that is now being implemented by other cooperatives across the country.

“We heard for many years from our electric customers about the need for options. Many were using satellite, DSL or even dial-up and those platforms just don’t cut it in our increasingly digital world,” said Bob Hance, president/CEO. “As a locally-owned cooperative we are committed to building relevant rural communities and ensuring that geography doesn’t limit someone’s scope of opportunity. Fiber internet is changing the landscape in rural southwest Michigan.

“We knew the interest was there, but never imagined hitting this major milestone inside of the five-year mark,” Hance added. “This speaks both to the need for the service and the quality of service that we’re delivering.”

MEC used a grassroots approach to drive the five-year construction plan. Interested customers submitted expressions of interest, and construction plans proceeded based on the areas with the greatest interest.

“Everyone wanted to be first, and had a compelling reason why they needed to be first. We were in the impossible position of having to determine a construction plan, so we placed that firmly in the hands of our customers,” Hance explained. “Someone was always going to be in Year 5, and we’re finally there.”

MEC is celebrating the 10,000th customer milestone by donating $10,000, targeting organizations in communities that fell into the fifth year of construction.

“These communities may be last, but are not least in any way, shape or form. This is one small way we can thank them for their great patience through this process,” Hance said.

Using partnership support from Wolverine Power Cooperative, MEC is making the following awards in June as part of the 10,000th customer celebration:

  • $2,500 to Autumn House in Paw Paw, which provides adult day care services for individuals with memory impairment/dementia, Alzheimer’s, stroke, Parkinson’s and other physical impairments.
  • $2,500 to Lending Hands in Portage, which is a medical equipment loan program that lends home medical equipment at no charge for up to seven months.
  • $2,000 to the Village of Constantine Parks and Recreation Department to support the purchase and installation of new merry-go-round at the local park.
  • $500 to the White Pigeon Care Network to support the White Pigeon Food Pantry.
  • $2,500 to the Hartford Public Library to support the Summer Reading Program.
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Cherryland’s Jim Carpenter Retires After 39 Years of Service

By |2019-02-22T07:42:25-05:00February 21st, 2019|MECA News|

After 39 years of service to the electric cooperative program, Cherryland Electric Cooperative announced that Jim Carpenter will retire as their line superintendent and safety director, effective April 2019.

“Jim’s passion and heart for our members will be missed,” said Tony Anderson, general manager of Cherryland. “We can’t replace the 35 plus years of experience at many different positions.”

Carpenter was hired by Cherryland in October 1979 and held a multitude of different positions, including materials clerk, tree trimmer, apprentice lineworker, and journeyman lineworker. In 1990, he was promoted to operations/maintenance supervisor and safety director. After serving as a safety instructor with the Michigan Electric Cooperative Association (MECA) from 2000 to 2003, Carpenter returned to Cherryland as line superintendent and eventually took on safety director and tree maintenance responsibilities.

During his tenure, Carpenter served as the president of the Utility Workers Union, Local 521. He currently sits on the board of directors for the National Utility Training and Safety Education Association (NUTSEA).

“I have loved my years at Cherryland,” said Carpenter. “It has provided me the ability to network with so many good, caring people. And those are the best kind; people who are focused on the members they serve.”

Carpenter is active in his community, serving at the board level for local educational institutions, credit unions, and nature conservation organizations and frequently volunteering for his church and assisted living homes. In his free time, he is an avid outdoorsman, musician, runner, and wood carver.

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Rave Reviews for Great Lakes Energy Fiber-to-the-Home Internet Service

By |2019-01-18T10:10:20-05:00January 17th, 2019|MECA News|

Fifty lucky subscribers were the first to be connected to Trustream before the end of 2018, and the new fiber-to-the-home internet service from Great Lakes Energy is already receiving rave reviews. Earlier this month,  Bear Creek Organic Farm shared a Facebook post explaining the dramatic impact Trustream has had on their business and in their daily lives:

“IT FINALLY HAPPENED! ON January 10, 2019 we joined the 21st century with high-speed fiber internet from Great Lakes Energy & Truestream.

These internet speed tests are from 6AM today. Until we had Truestream, we used two internet providers because both were inconsistent. We have paid $3000/year for the worst internet of anyone we know for the last 5 years. Now we will pay $800 for some of the fastest internet in the USA.

The numbers don’t lie. Truestream is 40x faster than our HughesNet and 400x faster than our rural Verizon service. And for 75% LESS money with NO contract and unlimited everything.

We could write a book about the ways this internet boondoggle has hampered our business, our daily life, and our essential infrastructure. But we won’t. Rather, this is a story about customer service, surveys, and customer value.

On August 2, 2016, our electric cooperative Great Lakes Energy sent out a ‘quick online survey’ to learn more about their customers’ access to high-speed internet. They were exploring the idea that a power company connecting rural communities to the electric grid might also be able to play a role in connecting these same customers to the high-speed internet the rest of the nation enjoys.

And in a testament to the power of customer surveys (hopefully you answered ours!) the response was staggering. The forgotten rural communities in our great state and nation were lacking access to this basic service. And we had something to say about it!

Fast forward two years. This summer GLE could be seen installing fiber cables on their power lines all around Emmet County. All summer we would wave & thumbs up at the installation crews on roadsides everywhere. And all summer we felt like our prayers had been answered. Somebody listened to their customers. Somebody chose to take on a massive infrastructure challenge head-on. We don’t know how many power companies are also internet providers, but in an era of waning government investment in critical infrastructure- Great Lakes Energy answered the need.

On Wednesday, Cindy from Truestream called our phone. She said “Hi Brian, this is Cindy from Truestream”. Brian replied “Cindy! Why does it sound like I can hear you smiling???” Cindy said “Well Brian, I’ve been excited to make this call to you for a long time.” Brian said “Oh CINDY! This sounds like GOOD NEWS!” And the rest is history.

We know many of our friends are still waiting for Truestream. And Great Lakes Energy knows it too. The road to fast internet has been slow, but GLE has answered the call! If you haven’t signed up for service – do it. Your neighbors are depending on you. Areas with higher interest will receive service sooner. And it will be worth it.

For the first time since Griffin was born, we were able to successfully FaceTime with his grandparents in Florida. No static, no lag, no blurry faces. Just family connecting across time and space the way the internet age originally intended! Now that’s a dream come true!”

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MECA Expands Outreach With MPSC

By |2018-11-16T14:36:08-05:00November 16th, 2018|MECA News|

MECA and its member co-ops have always valued a positive working relationship with the Michigan Public Service Commission (MPSC). However, since all of the co-ops have transitioned to member regulation in recent years, interaction between the co-ops and the agency has become much less frequent.

While the MPSC no longer regulates rates for co-ops, they do regulate several important issues that impact co-ops, including: energy waste reduction programs (Energy Optimization), the low-income energy assistance fund, capacity demonstration, service territories and code of conduct.

The MECA board recently identified open communication with the MPSC as a strategic priority and approved the hiring of Dan Blair (former MPSC Electric Division Director) to lead this effort in a consultant role. Under the direction of Mr. Blair, MECA and its member co-ops recently held two important outreach events with the MPSC:

Electric Cooperative Foundations
On Oct. 23, MECA hosted an “Electric Cooperative Foundations” session for approximately 50-60 new MPSC staff members at the agency’s offices in Lansing. The two-hour session was facilitated by Doug Snitgen, Executive VP at MECA, and included a significant amount of questions and dialogue from MPSC staff.

“We were really impressed by the level of engagement from the MPSC staff and the quality of questions they asked,” said Craig Borr, MECA President and CEO. “Even though the Commission no longer regulates our co-op rates, they’re clearly aware of what’s going on in the co-op world.”

Broadband Field Excursion
On Nov. 5, MECA hosted a rural broadband field day for MPSC leadership to learn more about electric co-op efforts to bring quality, fiber-speed internet service to rural communities in Michigan. The event, held at the HomeWorks office in Portland, was attended by approximately 20 senior members of both the MPSC and the Michigan Agency for Energy (MAE).

The event kicked off with presentations on co-op broadband deployment efforts by HomeWorks (Mark Kappler, general manager), Great Lakes Energy (Scott Blecke, VP engineering and Steve Drake, CFO), and Midwest Energy and Communications (Bob Hance, CEO).

In the afternoon, attendees visited a HomeWorks broadband connected home. The homeowner, a General Motors engineer, explained how the service allows him to live in the rural community that he loves, and continue to work remotely for his employer, which is headquartered in the Detroit area. He no longer has to rent office space to access a quality internet connection (a $10,000 annual savings!) and said the quality of service he now receives at his home is superior to what he even had available at the office.

Chris O’Neil, Fiber Operations Manager at HomeWorks, concluded the event with several demonstrations to explain how the fiberoptic broadband system works.

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