Telephone Town Hall Keeps Members in the Loop
About 700 United members from the Joshua, Burleson, and Cleburne area attended a virtual “telephone town hall” June 10 to learn about what’s happening at their electric cooperative.
During this live chat session, members heard updates about some key endeavors, such as managing the effects of February’s winter storm on United, progress on the high-speed internet project and the upcoming rate adjustment. Attendees also took advantage of a question-and-answer time after the main presentation.
United CEO Cameron Smallwood said he was pleased with the turnout and the quality of participation during the June call. Initiated from the need to communicate with members during the COVID-19 pandemic last year, the telephone town hall meeting has become just one more effective communication tool in bringing updates to members.
“After the success of last year’s events, United’s staff wanted to continue trying out this option of communicating with our members,” he said. “When we use this method of communication, United is able to reach out to several hundred members during each call to let them know what their co-op is doing and give updates on projects and issues that directly affect them. As United continues with these virtual meetings, we will move across United’s service area in an effort to include all of our members.”
During the event, Smallwood discussed the turning up of nearly 5,000 members onto the co-op’s high-speed internet service and the challenges and improvements United has encountered to meet the rapid growth in demand. Demand for not only initial connection but also the demand for capacity as members are wanting to get the absolute most out of this world- class internet system.
Smallwood said United has experienced almost five-percent growth on the electric side of the cooperative this year and is currently experiencing the challenges of meeting the needs of the influx of new people moving into the area. The co-op currently services more than 11,000 miles of distribution lines, 67,000 members and nearly 94,000 meters.
“The five percent growth is a pretty big number for an electric cooperative,” he said. “We haven’t seen those kind of growth numbers since the late 1990s in our territory. We’re just pleased to be able to support those folks on our electric lines and now our internet lines that we’re building all over our territory. That’s been a benefit to our current members because the more folks that we have on our system, gives us the ability to spread the cost of operating the electric system over more people. That’s a good thing.”
He explained how Winter Storm Uri and poor planning across the state created the conditions requiring the rotating outages that United members and others in the state experienced mid-February, as well as how the aftermath of the storm is still playing out with the Brazos Electric Power Cooperative bankruptcy process.
Brazos is United’s power and transmission provider, and United is one of 16 Texas cooperatives that partly owns and purchases electricity from the organization.
Labelling the resulting fallout from the storm as a possible “Texas-Sized Failure,” Smallwood explained how electricity generators and gas producers were not prepared for the cold snap. Reports of frozen gas lines meant gas-powered electric generators couldn’t meet the precipitously high demand consumers were putting on the grid to stay warm as temperatures plummeted into the teens and single digits and wind chills dropped below zero.
With lack of additional generation, electric distribution providers such as United were mandated to begin rotating outages to keep the grid from collapsing altogether. One chart Smallwood presented showed that Texas was a mere four and a half minutes from a complete blackout on the ERCOT system. Energy providers shed a record load to prevent that major crisis from occurring.
During the event, United cycled about two-thirds of its members through about 4,000 outage cycles. Members averaged about 50 minutes on and 30 minutes off.
Several months outside the February freeze-out, Smallwood said that United members may feel the worst is over, as United’s rates never changed during the event, and members paid for the energy they used at the normal rate. However, there is still much uncertainty about the storm’s impact to United.
“Brazos chose to file bankruptcy rather in an effort to avoid immediately passing those cost on to the 16 different owners, and United is one of those owners” Smallwood said. “As an owner, we get to give our input but not final decision-making. So, we’re taking measures to mitigate the potential high bill that could be pushed to our members.”
Because of the storm, United held a rate adjustment planned for April until this October, Smallwood said. This event also may influence the ability for United to return member dividends this year, which would interrupt a history of returning member dividends for the past 37 years.
Landy Bennett, chief administrative officer and a main organizer for the virtual town-hall event, said he was impressed with the overall interaction and the number of participants involved in the June meeting.
“Based on the length of time that most of the members stay on the call/presentation and the question-and-answer sessions at the end, the members truly appreciate the fact that we are reaching out to them being transparent on essential issues or giving much needed updates on projects that impact their lives,” he said. “United’s staff would always prefer to meet in person. However, by using the electronic town hall program, we are also able to provide members who can’t get to a person-to-person meeting with an avenue to learn about their co-op and the difference that a cooperative brings to its members.”
United's June 10 Telephone Town Hall
During this live chat session, members heard updates about some key endeavors, such as managing the effects of February’s winter storm on United, the high-speed internet project, the rate adjustment and the Member Appreciation Day/Annual Meeting this October. Features Q&A time, too!