Oregon electric co-ops take extraordinary steps to help their members in extraordinary times
The first in a series on how Oregon electric co-ops are helping their members through the global pandemic.
By Ted Case
Electric co-ops know this is not business as usual. Extreme unemployment, shuttered businesses and school cancellations brought on by the coronavirus have created unprecedented challenges for American families.
Oregon’s electric cooperatives have attempted to meet the moment by— among other innovative solutions— providing energy bill assistance, helping consumers navigate complex federal guidelines for loans, and offering broadband to students who otherwise would have no access.
Throughout the state, electric co-ops are enhancing or creating assistance programs to help consumers who are having trouble paying their electric bill. For instance, Salem Electric is supporting members impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic by offering a one-time $150 bill credit to residential and general service members.
We’ve heard from numerous members and know the pandemic is hitting them hard,” said Salem Electric Manager Tony Schacher. “We hope the assistance will provide them some relief.”
Salem Electric—like all of Oregon’s electric cooperatives—has suspended any residential disconnections of electric service and is waiving late fees for nonpayment.
Umatilla Electric Cooperative in Hermiston has developed an innovative program for area businesses that need help applying for the federal Economic Injury Disaster Loan and the Paycheck Protection Program. The co-op created the UEC Business Resource Center to provide free assistance to area business owners applying for federal grants and low-interest loans available to businesses experiencing negative effects from COVID-19.
“During this period of uncertainty, I’m pleased the newly developed UEC Business Resource Center can offer assistance to our business community,” said UEC General Manager Robert Echenrode.
“Although we cannot change what is occurring globally, we do have the ability to work toward improving the economic viability of our communities,” added UEC board member Bryan Wolfe. “UEC is committed to this.”
In UEC’s popular online sessions, economic development expert Greg Smith tells consumers he will help them “understand the difference between these programs to give you the best chance of success to your hard-earned tax dollars.”
Access to broadband has been particularly important as schools have shifted toward online learning. However, access to reliable internet is not always an option in many rural and remote areas. Roseburg-based Douglas Electric Cooperative has been working with local school districts to make sure students are not on the wrong side of the digital divide.
The electric co-op’s internet business Douglas Fast Net, launched a program called DFN Cares specifically for remote education. It provides two months of free internet service and Wi-Fi to students who do not have access.
“We’ve seen an uptick for needs of students,” Douglas Fast Net CEO Todd Way told The News Review. “Once we realized that it was going to be an extended (school closure), that it wasn’t going to be one or two weeks, we needed to step up.”
By late April, the company had received 70 orders to connect students to the internet.
A similar situation occurred in the Hood River Valley, where the county school district contacted Hood River Electric Cooperative seeking help with providing internet access to low-income student households in small communities such as Odell. General Manager Libby Calnon thought the request offered HREC—which provides fixed-wireless and direct fiber broadband internet service to much of the Hood River Valley—a unique opportunity to help their community. The cooperative has wired about 45 homes for internet that otherwise would not have access.
“We are connecting these homes so these kids don’t miss out on online learning opportunities,” Calnon said.
Calnon said serving those who otherwise would not be served is why cooperatives exist.
“It’s a rewarding project to be a part of,” she said.