Cooperatives firmly put people before profits. As a business model that is not-for-profit and geared directly toward fulfilling needs in communities, that is the only way that makes sense.
In 2020, the people of Basin Electric’s employee base and membership were affected quickly, directly, and harshly by the COVID-19 global pandemic.
Basin Electric stood firmly in its cooperative values, doing what it could to provide support to employees and community members.
Basin Electric is committed to providing reliable energy to the membership, no matter the conditions. After some investigation, the cooperative postponed scheduled outages at three power plants, which would have required outside contracted workers to travel to the plants, to ensure the safety of employees and communities. This move also saved more than $36 million in 2020, costs which will be incurred during outages in future years.
The pandemic (and mild weather in 2020) had an impact on member residential, commercial, and industrial load in the short -term, and a continuing expected impact on industrial load in the long-term forecast. Still, higher growth is projected in Basin Electric’s membership, compared to nationwide growth estimates.
In an effort to support Basin Electric’s members during the pandemic, directors authorized the early retirement of nearly $18.6 million of patronage capital credits at their April 2020 meeting to help mitigate the financial effects of the pandemic. Typically, capital credit retirements are considered by the board for distribution in December.
The Charitable Giving Program sprang into action as well. Basin Electric gave $382,489 in member-matching donations in 2020, and directed a significant portion of COVID-19 related donations to hunger relief.
Basin Electric’s commitment to its workforce was demonstrated in several areas: paid time off related to COVID-19, attention to working conditions, safety precautions, and medical access.
Human Resources updated the cooperative’s Pandemic Preparedness Plan in early March. Changes were made swiftly to how employees received time off. Many employees were eligible for paid time off without using sick leave or vacation time when affected by COVID-19, which encouraged employees to stay home when feeling ill, when a family member was being tested, or after having a close contact with a positive case. Provisions also included paid time off for day care and school close contact situations to support Basin Electric families. A face covering policy and robust workspace disinfecting protocols were applied, and social distancing guidelines were implemented for all employees. Health insurance benefits were expanded, including no cost to employees for COVID-related health care and waiving “refill too soon” limits. A more flexible schedule was implemented where possible to help employees find balance between time working and family demands.
Basin Electric’s Medical Services employees expanded their availability to evening and weekend phone coverage to address COVID-19 concerns. They were able to conduct various types of COVID-19 testing and perform workplace contact tracing. A questionnaire was distributed to employees to help determine interest in, and ultimately for, the development and implementation of a COVID-19 vaccine administration plan. Human Resources partnered with the State of North Dakota and local public health units and clinics to access vaccine, and also procured vaccination freezers and refrigerators to appropriately store the vaccine.
At the plants, work was done to ensure distancing, including an added control room in the field building at the Synfuels Plant allowing some to work remotely. Shifts were staggered, and some turnaround and outage work was moved to 2021 or the scope was reduced once a plan could be approved with appropriate state departments. Also, a plan has been developed for administrative employees to return to the Headquarters building, safely, rather than continue to work from home after COVID-19 cases declined among employees and within local communities, and a vaccine was available.
Basin Electric’s employee turnover in 2020 was low. As of Feb. 21, 2021, there are
1,305 employees at Basin Electric and 516 employees at Dakota Gas.
"Our employees across all areas made sacrifices to ensure Basin Electric continues to operate at the highest standards, serving our member-owners. It is no small feat for an entire workforce to quickly adapt to working within the new situation of a global pandemic. In addition to our employees in the field, essential support staff including Medical Services, staff on the trading floor, Security and Response Services, IT Support Center, and many more employees who quickly adapted to a work-from-home setting supported one another to make sure operations were seamless and our business continued flawlessly."
Diane Paul, Basin Electric senior vice president of Human Resources
"When an operator couldn’t show up for their shift, others came in on their personal time to fill those gaps. There were times when an entire shift of employees had to leave on short notice due to someone being ill or a close contact. On the maintenance side, day staff was divided into two groups working a modified schedule. Since the crews were smaller than normal, it was challenging to get time-sensitive work completed. Everyone had to respond very quickly, and employees had to do whatever it took to get the job done."
Dale johnson, Dakota Gas vice president and Synfuels Plant manager
"In Transmission System Maintenance, the work isn’t centrally located, but employees work in crews together. They drove separate vehicles to job sites and developed a tiered system to ensure substations and lines were maintained. We never got to the ‘worst case scenario’ that they laid out, but what do you do in the event of a major storm taking down lines and crews are quarantined? You figure out how to do what you need to do."
Tom Christensen, Basin Electric senior vice president of Transmission, Engineering, and Construction
"A lot of employees stepped up to try to help each other out. We worked hard to keep the power on, and we stepped in when co-workers had to take time off for COVID, even when it was helping out family members or friends. I am proud that Basin Electric treated everybody right and tried to do what was needed to work through this."
Troy Tweeten, Basin Electric senior vice president of Operations
The COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent screeching brakes of the economy had widespread impact for several months in 2020, beginning in March. Nearly every industry was impacted, and it’s difficult to find a community that wasn’t affected in some way. Here are some stories from 2020.
Dairy in Iowa
Stensland Family Farms is a 105-year-old operation located near Larchwood, Iowa, and a member of Class C member Lyon Rural Electric Cooperative in Rock Rapids, Iowa. At the time COVID-19 hit, 40% of Stensland Family Farms’ sales were in the wholesale market. That market went away overnight. The dairy farm was able to fill in gaps caused by COVID-19.
“In those weeks right after people went home, they were drinking a lot more milk because families were eating at home and kids were drinking milk at home,” says Doug Stensland, owner of Stensland Family Farms. “We saw a 25-30% jump. But now that the larger producers have their arms around it, our demand is back to normal.”
Ethanol in South Dakota
When COVID-19 shut down businesses and schools in March, many people, essential workers excluded, started putting on fewer road miles. This new behavior had an intense effect on oil prices, and therefore ethanol production. Southeastern Electric Cooperative’s three largest loads are the TC Energy pipeline, NuGen Energy ethanol plant, and the POET Biorefining - Chancellor ethanol plant.
“We saw our kilowatt-hours drop by 39% through May, and revenue drop by 30% on these large loads as well,” says Brad Schardin, general manager at Southeastern Electric, a Class C member in Marion, South Dakota.
Oil in North Dakota
By early March, oil prices had fallen 30% since the start of 2020. For a brief period, the price of oil was negative, a result of storage being completely full and nowhere to put production. In North Dakota, about 6,100 of the state’s 16,000 producing wells were shut in. North Dakota’s rig count dropped to 11 rigs in July, less than a quarter of the average number in March. Production fell to 858,000 barrels a day in May, the lowest level since 2013. According to North Dakota Job Service, one-fifth of the state’s oil and gas employees were out of work.
“We are happy Mountrail-Williams [Electric Cooperative, a Class C member in Williston] has helped us get through this period, making sure we have the power we need to get the [recently built] facility going,” says Kevin Black, president of Creedence Energy Services.
Schools in Montana
For some children, when they’re not in school, they don’t get fed. It’s a harsh truth that many charitable organizations try to solve. Sheridan Electric Cooperative, a Class C member in Medicine Lake, Montana, helped nine schools feed students in need while away from school during the COVID-19 pandemic crisis.
“The real heroes are the school districts. They are the foundation for our future. We have spent a lot of time developing relationships with our school district partners. We do not serve them electricity, but we serve them nonetheless,” says Scott Westlund, Sheridan Electric general manager.
Gift of life
Many blood drives were cancelled due to COVID-19, but the need for blood donations didn’t go away. Drives at Laramie River Station, Leland Olds Station, Antelope Valley Station, the Great Plains Synfuels Plant, and Headquarters collected more than 318 units of blood. That is enough to save 954 lives.
A gift from Powder River Energy Corporation [a Class C member cooperative in Gillette, Wyoming] employees and board of directors multiplied, cooperative-style.
The PRECorp employee team decided to donate the funds that would normally be used on the Christmas party to local food pantries and soup kitchens. The PRECorp Foundation responded with a dollar-for-dollar match of those funds. In turn, Basin Electric matched the PRECorp funds, resulting in $35,200 to help feed the hungry across five northeast Wyoming counties.