Coping With COVID-19

The PUD’s careful preparations have been invaluable

By Rodger Nichols

During the coronavirus pandemic, Northern Wasco County PUD posted Facebook photos illustrating how its employees practice social distancing. Journeyman Lineman Ryan Manciu shows his love from a bucket truck. Photos by Cyndi Gentry

Since mid-March, Northern Wasco PUD has put some of its risk management preparations into practice due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Among other duties, Harvey Hall is involved with the PUD’s risk management program.

“It’s all about keeping lights on and people safe,” Harvey says. “That’s our first and primary response. We have to think of the safety of our customers, and we have to think of the safety of the staff.”

District staff, from the board to the newest employees, have done an excellent job in their dedication to those goals.

First, the PUD immediately stopped direct contact with customers in the field and in the office. The exception is when deploying field staff using proper personal protective equipment to reconnect and restore power and ensure system reliability in the event of an emergency.

As part of protecting both crews and customers, the PUD has instituted a practice that, for the duration of the COVID-19 event, no customer will be disconnected for nonpayment. That’s important for health reasons because some customers depend on electricity to power medical devices, and for safety reasons, because it reduces the chances for the virus to spread.

The deposit requirement for new customers also has been delayed.

The corporate services team has worked hard to keep information available for customers on the district's Facebook page, the district website, messages on its bills, and via phone calls.

“Staying in communication with our customers has been a critical part of the response,” Harvey says. “Corporate services have done an excellent job.”

Wherever possible, PUD staff are working remotely, clearing out of the building and abiding by the call to “Stay home, save lives” and social distancing requests by Oregon Gov. Kate Brown.

Harvey says each team within the PUD system determined what services were essential. For the finance team, it’s making sure employees get paid, vendors get paid and customers get billed.

“Just one customer service representative comes in and gets the daily deposits from our boxes and our mail, and processes those so customer payments get logged in,” Harvey says.

Thanks to the recent installation of advanced metering infrastructure that can read meters electronically from a distance, a meter reader no longer needs to cross everyone’s property to read the meter.

Senior Financial Analyst James Ruoff has the office all to himself while others work remotely.

Of 9,000 residential customers, about 800 have not yet received the new meters. Harvey says the PUD can estimate the readings, based on historical use, until crews can resume new meter installation.

Harvey says both the timely installation of new meters and the establishment of an enterprise risk management program made things considerably easier for the PUD to implement protective steps.

“We basically were prepared,” Harvey says. “We had a plan and we were able to execute that plan. We completely understand we’re just beginning to see the impact of this, but we’re taking a number of steps.”

One big step was taken in early April, when the PUD’s board of directors decided to postpone a modest rate increase until May 2021.

Planning played a big part in that decision. The PUD has a rate stabilization fund of approximately $4.6 million. By tapping that fund to offset revenue the increase would have brought in, board members had the flexibility to delay the increase.

As a public utility, unlike a privately owned utility that must answer to stockholders, the PUD has a commitment to ratepayers, who are also its owners.

“We’re continually looking at ways to partner with our customers, help them through this time, and not put people in an even worse spot that’s already difficult,” Harvey says. “Even when this is over and restrictions are lifted, we will continue to work with customers because the district has already anticipated that we’re going to have some people who are really hurting. That rate stabilization fund is going to be key to helping us during that period without having to damage the district financially.”

The no-disconnect and delayed-deposit provisions apply to residential, commercial, and industrial customers.

Customer Service Representative Haley Red Cloud Windsor has a friend to keep her company in the office.

The PUD is re-examining proposed capital projects for the biennium.

The board understands investment in infrastructure can be a smart financial move—as evidenced by the recent installation of the AMI meters and past investments, such as generating facilities at McNary and The Dalles dams.

Power from the two facilities costs the district about 1.8 cents per kilowatt-hour, compared to buying power from the Bonneville Power Administration at 3.5 cents per kWh.

“Our engineers will look at the system and decide what absolutely needs to happen in the next two years to ensure we maintain our obligations to our customers, the reliability of the system, and the increased capacity to meet short-term increases or demands without adversely affecting any customers,” Harvey says.

The engineers’ proposals will be analyzed for financial impacts and implemented as needed.

Recent events have shown the advantages of planning early and being prepared for changes that are both expected and unexpected. It’s a policy the PUD will continue to practice.