Recovering from a hurricane is easy. Ok, maybe not easy, but most utilities located near the coast are prepared. There’s usually a risk mitigation plan, and, most importantly, there is the benefit of experience. With COVID-19, utilities are in uncharted territory.
This point cannot be overstated.
“There’s one big difference between responding to a storm and a pandemic like this,” said Don Bowman, the vice president of engineering and operations at Wake Electric Membership Corporation. “A storm is very regional. We know who is going to get hit the hardest, who is going to get hit lightly, and who is not going to see any activity.”
Since 1940, Wake Electric has been serving approximately 46,000 members outside of Raleigh, North Carolina. They have seen the damages of hurricanes first-hand and understand that the small fraternity of utilities will rise and help each other in times of need. Unaffected utilities swarm to problem areas and help get the power back on as fast as possible. It’s part of a utility’s DNA.
“People in Illinois are not going to see hurricane damage,” Bowman said. “So when it’s six days out, and it looks like we’re just going to get pummeled, we get crews from Illinois. We get mutual aid, and it’s a big way of running our operation. We are used to handling regional challenges”
Bowman’s Illinois analogy is just one example of the strong tradition of utilities helping each other out. With COVID-19, utilities are facing a global crisis and aren’t able to lean on each other in the same way. Like many utilities, Wake Electric is figuring it out daily—balancing the safety of the team with giving their members a level of service that is expected. However, for every problem that is solved, another one arises. Decisions need to be made every day, and utilities don’t have the benefit of past experiences to lean on.
Once the gravity of the pandemic was fully understood, it became apparent that some cooperative members might have problems paying bills. Like most utilities across the country, Wake Electric quickly understood that immediate and decisive action was required. They suspended all disconnects, removed bill payment late fees, and worked individually with members to develop flexible payment plans.
But these actions only scratched the surface. They also had to protect their own workers’ safety while giving members an acceptable level of service. This prompted Wake Electric to close its main offices and direct most employees to work remotely.
“We did not have a work from home policy,” Bowman said. “We still don’t have a work from home policy. We have a pandemic response kind of procedure that we put in place real quick.”
Working remotely introduced many new questions. For instance, how to handle on-site bill payment? With the doors locked, payments were no longer able to be made in person. Several thousand members typically pay in person, so it wasn’t a small problem. Wake Electric quickly put in place a secure, drop-box payment system.
Phones were another matter. Understanding how to transition from an on-site call center to a remote setup was a bigger problem. Wake Electric decided to leverage technology and switched to an IP cloud-hosted phone system. This allowed employees to work remotely.
“It was more challenging than what we expected,” Bowman said. “We weren’t prepared to have a remote call center just like that. It took us a while. In fact, it was last week before we were able to move our call centers to the houses. It was a factor of the phone systems being directly connected to our CIS—so that when a person calls, their information pops up on the screen.”
“It wasn’t pain-free,” Bowman continued. “It took a week for us to figure out all the nuances, but we got all of our calls to work from home. It was just a sign that the technology is out there to help us get through these problems.”
Changing Operational Processes
Limiting interactions between team members has been a big focus. From staggering daily lineman meetings to developing new recommendations for the number of people per truck, Wake Electric has reevaluated all employee touchpoints.
For example, before COVID-19, Wake Electric worked hard to reduce the number of trucks on the road—but that has changed. Now everybody gets their own truck.
We provide them a visual of the SCADA system in the truck. We provide them with AMI headend. They can ping a meter. They can look at power quality, and they can do a check. They have all the same functions that we have in the office. They are self-sufficient.Don Bowman, Vice President of Engineering and Operations at Wake Electric
Linemen are taking every precaution to maintain social distancing best practices. And by fully embracing technology, there is minimal interaction with people. By giving them remote system visibility, linemen at Wake Electric no longer need to go to the office. Years ago, linemen would need to turn in work orders at the end of the day. Today, it is done digitally. Technology has allowed most of Wake Electric’s employees to be able to work from anywhere.
“We provide them a visual of the SCADA system in the truck,” Bowman said. “We provide them with AMI headend. They can ping a meter. They can look at power quality, and they can do a check. They have all the same functions that we have in the office. They are self-sufficient.”
Wake Electric is just one utility among many that’s doing their part to keep the power on during this time of need. Businesses around the country are facing similar problems and can relate to the cascade effect of decision making in the time of COVID-19. Wake Electric is leveraging both technology and good old fashioned ingenuity to give their members the best level of service possible, safely.
“I think that the point of technology is that it’s for efficiency,” Bowman said. “We’ve proven that it’s working and it’s working in our favor in this situation as well. And I don’t think it was just Wake Electric. I think cooperatives, in general, surprised themselves in being able to pull this off.”
Sensus encourages you to show appreciation to utility workers around the world that are keeping the power on during this crisis. #ThankYourUtility