News & Events

Good news for our HomeWorks Tri-County propane customers! We are, right now, informing our delivery drivers to begin filling tanks to "full" status as of this afternoon (February 12). Propane inventories continue to stabilize here in the Midwest; based on our current on-hand supply and contract arrangements, we don't see a reoccurrence of short-filling for the remainder of the heating season. Just a thought: if you've gotten used to dialing down during this situation, you may want to continue. It will make a difference in your energy use and your bills!
Helping the less fortunate among us is our responsibility, and our duty, as human beings. Sadly, the Michigan Legislature tried to find a way to make it our responsibility as consumers of electricity, and in 2013 their hurried attempt at a law created a bigger mess than they were trying to fix. After several years of discussion, the Legislature developed a funding plan to be paid by the state’s electric consumers rather than from everyone’s tax dollars. At the last moment, they added a provision to make it optional for utilities, like HomeWorks, to participate. The bill was signed into law July 1 and handed over to the Michigan Public Service Commission for implementation. On July 11, we were notified of the MPSC’s plan, to put a surcharge of about a dollar on the monthly electric bill for each meter. We had until July 24 to decide to opt in or opt out. Members of our staff were assured, several times by several different people, that our members would still receive low-income energy assistance this winter, whether we opted in or not. However, because we did not opt in, we are not allowed to disconnect any meter for non-payment during the winter months. Your board of directors, at the July board meeting, looked at how much this surcharge would cost our members over a year. Considering the costs and benefits, and the fact that this was done in such a short time we had no chance to seek member input, the board chose not to participate this year, and re-evaluate for next year at an open member meeting. Just before Christmas, the state decided that because we can’t remove the meter, our low-income members are not facing an emergency situation and therefore don’t qualify for assistance until after April 15, when funds may or may not still be available. This is a 180-degree change in the policy that we were given in July. This means two things: • those members will face months of worry over increasing past-due balances, and the possibility of funds not being available in the spring; and • all of our other members will be responsible for the costs of bills that go unpaid, in the form of write-offs. We don’t think this is fair, and we’re working with our statewide association to get some kind of policy change to make sure our members are not punished for the rushed start to this year’s assistance program. Meanwhile, we are working with our low-income members to make the payments they can afford. And the Tri-County Electric People Fund has received a donation they will use this winter to help low-income members with their electric bills. Our customer service representative will refer eligible members to the People Fund, as well as to the 2-1-1 service’s list of other area agencies that may be able to help. There are no easy answers to helping our low-income neighbors, and we’re disappointed with the state’s response, starting with the Legislature’s rushed bill. We are working on solutions that will be fair to all of our members; we hope if you have suggestions, you’ll share them with us at or before the open member meeting April 28.
There have been severe shortages in propane supplies across the Midwest since last fall, and our suppliers may have to set us up on an allocation system that restricts our access to our contracted propane. To help make sure all our customers have enough fuel for the next weeks and months, we are filling tanks only to a maximum of 60%. Factors contributing to the propane supply situation across 24 states include transportation issues, higher foreign exports, a late and wet harvest season (propane is used for grain drying), extreme cold temperatures, heavy snowfall, and pipeline disruptions or shutdowns. We are keeping a careful eye on both the supply situation and your tank, so that you don’t have a propane outage. You can help us by checking your own propane tank gauge often and calling us at 1-877-574-2740 if it’s at 20% or lower. You can also help by “dialing down” your thermostat to conserve your own fuel supply. Dialing down the thermostat just one degree during the winter can result in about 1 to 3 percent less fuel use. Instead of turning up the heat to increase the overall warmth in the huge volume of space inside your house, you can dial down and simply increase your personal insulation with a sweater or sweatshirt and warm socks to help retain body heat. It will take just a day or two for your body will adjust to the "new normal" house temperature. We also suggest using an alternate heat source, such as a woodstove or fireplace, if you have one available. Our guaranteed capped and pre-buy prices will remain in effect through the heating season, which ends April 30. After that date, you’ll want to budget for an increase in prices, unless the wholesale market returns to its pre-shortage levels. updated January 24, 2014
Scammers continue to target electric cooperative members in several states, including here in Michigan. Cherryland Electric Cooperative reported this morning that “Last night someone called one of our members claiming they owed $4,000 and that their power would be shut off if they did not pay immediately with their credit card over the phone. Luckily, this member recognized it as a scam and called us today to report it.” Other scammers seek personal information such as your Social Security number or bank account number. Like Cherryland, we will NEVER call you and demand immediate payment over the phone. If your account is delinquent, you will receive a notice on your bill and you will receive automated calls from our automatic calling system. These calls will instruct you to call our toll-free number to make a payment. You can also access your account anytime, anywhere through SmartHub on our website. This will allow you to verify your balance and make payments using our secured online system. We only collect personal information about you when YOU call US, to set up your service or make a payment, for example. Once your account is set up, our CSRs may ask you to verify information we have on account; they have access to your birthdate and the last four numbers of your Social Security number to compare. We also suggest you set up a password on your account so we can verify your identity when you call us. If anyone calls you or approaches you and claims to be collecting money or information for HomeWorks Tri-County Electric Cooperative, please don’t GIVE them anything. Gather information about them, if you safely can, and report it to us at 1-800-562-8232 as soon as possible.
Writing this as our crews have just finished cleaning up from the November 17 storm, I’m reminded that every power outage is a learning experience for us. Ideally, of course, we would never have power outages, or blinks. But that’s not the way electric distribution systems work, so instead of wishing for the impossible, we focus on eliminating potential problems. For instance, trees are one of the most significant causes of power outages during wind storms, so we invest time and money every year into our right-of-way clearing program. Since 2006, we’ve nearly completed clearing all 3,400 miles of our system. The next challenges are 1) keeping those rights-of-way clear for the future, and 2) looking out for the taller trees beyond our right-of-way that could still come down into our lines. We’ll be doing more with herbicides sooner, to stop trees before they grow where they shouldn’t. The ash tree problem of the past few years has also kept us busy, as many ash trees that were healthy when we cleared the circuit have since been infested and killed by emerald ash borers. They’re now considered “danger trees” and we’re being proactive, working with property owners to take care of them before they cause problems. Our crews have also been doing circuit-by-circuit inspections, looking for loose connections, worn equipment, or other areas that need just a little work now, to prevent problems later. This work is in addition to our longer-term work plan, where our engineers review each circuit to make sure it’s working efficiently to serve the members it reaches. We also know that communication is essential, back and forth between dispatchers and crews, and between our office and our members. We’ve worked with area telephone companies to get the best use of our phone lines. Still, even with sending calls to a large regional cooperative call center, not everyone can get through. Especially on that Sunday in November, when the storm blasted hard through most of the Midwest. With millions of people out of power, there just weren’t enough phone lines or dispatchers to take every call. Facebook is not meant to be a substitute for calling, but it is a useful clearinghouse for information and we will continue developing our presence on Facebook, and soon on Twitter, to help keep the conversation going. Our mission, as always, is to provide you and your family with energy and other services to improve your quality of life. Making sure your power is there when you need it is the foundation for everything we do.                                                                                                                  
The holidays are nearly upon us, so it may seem an odd time to think about a garden growing in the sun. But that’s just we’re doing at HomeWorks. We’re moving forward with the first phase of a community solar project, or garden, at our Portland Operations Center. “Why community, and why solar?”, you may ask. We’ve had many members contact us about solar (photovoltaic) projects for their homes or businesses. Only a few have had the right combination of site, technical knowledge, and available funds to make those plans a reality. We have the right site, along with access to both expertise and funding, to put a project together. And it makes sense for us to take this step, since we’ve promoted solar energy through geothermal heating and cooling for many years. By making it a community project, open to our members to invest in and take advantage of, we all win! This first phase will include a number of photovoltaic panels. The way similar gardens have worked for other co-ops is this: each member has the opportunity to lease a panel. We’re aiming for a net cost of around $500 after an Energy Optimization rebate of $75. The output from a member’s panel would be metered and used here at Portland. Participating members would then get a bill credit for the power generated by their panel, at our purchased power cost. Our planning is based on panels with a capacity of 290 watts, estimated to produce an average of 28 kilowatt hours per month. It’s not a large amount, but it will add up to pay for the panel in about 20 years, possibly sooner. There are a lot of questions to be answered, from the supplier of the panels and their source, to the actual dollar amounts involved. But our first question is: are you interested? If you are, we invite you to let us know now. We’re starting a mailing list to identify interested members, who would also have the first opportunity to be part of this exciting new project. Please contact Nick Rusnell at 517-647-1247, or email solar@homeworks.org to add your name to the list; there is no commitment at this time. And whether you’d like to be an active participant or not, be sure to watch Country Lines, our website, and our Facebook page for updates.   Speaking of the holidays, the HomeWorks family sends our best wishes to your families. Our employees - whether they’re full- or part-time, working from Blanchard or Portland, in the office or the field - work very hard to make sure you get the best service possible. So we’ve featured them in this issue. We hope you enjoy “meeting” them on the following pages as much as you enjoy the results of their hard work. Happy holidays from HomeWorks!
“American Blackout” is a fictionalized National Geographic Channel docudrama that imagines the story of a national power failure in the United States caused by a cyberattack — told over 10 days. It’s scheduled for television broadcast on Sunday, October 27. For more information about “American Blackout,” read on.   Remember, it’s fiction - technically science fiction. Here’s what we’re doing to make sure this scenario stays fictional:   Our national association has a research arm called Cooperative Research Network (CRN). CRN has been very actively involved in cutting-edge research to improve utility sector cybersecurity.  A couple of weeks ago, the Department of Energy awarded CRN $3.6 million to develop cybersecurity management tools that will be available to the nation’s network of co-ops.    CRN is working with Honeywell Corporation, Carnegie Mellon University and Cigital on this project.  You can find out more about our cybersecurity program on NRECA.coop. Background ·       Filmed as a fictional docudrama, National Geographic Channel’s “American Blackout” depicts the first 10 days immediately following a nationwide blackout caused by a cyber attack that takes down the entire electric power grid. ·       The movie focuses on several different storylines of how people deal with the blackout.  The movie is presented in “real time” by using video clips from recent events, like Superstorm Sandy, Hurricane Katrina, the 2003 Eastern US blackout, and footage of President Obama speaking to the country during Superstorm Sandy.  ·       The movie is intended to appear real, and it is presented in such a way that some could be confused as to whether or not this is a real event.  Information and video clips from the movie can be found here: http://channel.nationalgeographic.com/channel/american-blackout/ You should also know: ·       This fictional movie presents a total electric grid failure which is highly unlikely in the real world based on the current design and operation of the grid. ·       Electric cooperatives take cybersecurity seriously; they have and will continue to take significant steps to protect the reliability and security of the electric system – transmission, generation and distribution. ·       Thanks to a grant from the Department of Energy, the Cooperative Research Network is developing an advanced cybersecurity management tool that will be accessible to small, remote utilities. ·       Electric cooperatives are partnering with federal agencies, including the Department of Energy and Homeland Security, to research threats, strengthen security measures and mitigate risk. ·       Electric cooperatives devote significant resources to preventing outages, and are continually improving response and recovery procedures for when outages do occur, regardless of the cause. ·       Thanks to a grant from the Department of Energy, the Cooperative Research Network is developing cloud-based software that will make advanced cybersecurity technology accessible to small, remote utilities. ·       Electric utilities, including co-ops, that own and operate critical infrastructure assets follow mandatory cybersecurity standards that are subject to fines by regulatory agencies of up to $1 million per day per violation.  In case you miss the airing, here’s what you need to know: ·       The movie is fictional and is not real.  ·       The movie’s fictional cyber attack causes significant physical damage to the U.S. electric utility infrastructure that within a day causes a cascading effect that brings down the entire grid. ·       The attack causes transformers of all sizes (pole-mounted and at substations) to explode. ·       The film does not identify the source of the attack. ·       Throughout the film, there are dramatic scenes of physical destruction and a rapid deterioration of social order.  ·       In the film’s final 2 minutes (day 10), authorities announce they have “isolated the malicious code that took down the grid” and a “system-wide reboot is starting.” It also states that it will be months before all physical assets that were damaged in the attack are restored. ·      A subtext to the movie appears to be that individuals and organizations need to plan for catastrophic events and to take comprehensive preparedness measures before disasters occur.
In May, we go from district to district, hosting an evening of information (and supper) for all members who choose to attend. We reach about 1,300 people through these seven meetings. It’s a busy two weeks for us, but we enjoy getting to see everyone again. If you’ve attended your district meeting, you know that you’re asked to attend the Annual Meeting in August. If you agree, you become a delegate, representing 100 of your neighbors. At this meeting, member-delegates approve the reports, such as the financial statements and the board of director election results. Another purpose for the annual meeting is to allow the delegates to consider and vote upon any resolutions, bylaw amendments, or other actions brought up by the members at the district meetings in May. Although these types of actions don’t come up very often, the democratic process framework is there for you to use in controlling the co-op you own. We also asked the members present to consider supporting the Action Committee for Rural Electrification (ACRE) through Co-op Owners for Political Action. For as little as $2.08 a month, you can help make sure there is a voice speaking on your behalf in Washington, D.C., and in Lansing. ACRE truly is a grass-roots political action committee; the average contribution per member is just $41. There are about 32,000 ACRE members across the USA, including electric co-op members who serve on their local electric co-op boards, as well as co-op employees. We pointed out that every good business needs a business plan to be successful long-term, and in these days of increasing government regulations, we need to have a political plan to make sure our interests are considered when laws are passed or regulations are written. In the past, many of you have sent postcards to Congress on behalf of your electric co-op and its interests. Now we’re asking you to take another step to help keep your electricity affordable and reliable. On the next page, you’ll find a form you can use to join with us. Also, visit Action.coop to learn even more about issues affecting America’s electric cooperatives and what you can do to help. Your voice is more important than ever in these politics-packed times. Will you speak with us?
Our Blanchard area line crews have set a planned maintenance outage for Thursday morning (Sept. 5) to replace broken cross arms. About 160 members will be affected, starting at 10 am, for up to 3 hours. These members are in Fork, Coldwater, Sherman, and Sheridan townships, and have been contacted by phone to alert them to the planned outage. Thanks for your patience as our crews work safely to keep your power reliable!
Did you hear about the substation transformer that filled with combustible gases and ignited, leaving thousands of cooperative members out of power for days until repairs could be made? No, you didn’t, because it didn’t happen here. On page 6 you can read about what did happen – an everyday story of people working together to take care of a problem before it became an emergency. That’s how things should work. In this case, our power supplier’s regular equipment testing revealed high levels of combustible gases in a large transformer in the Weidman substation. Wolverine Power Cooperative’s staff notified us and together, we started planning the best way to replace that transformer with the least disruption to our member-owners in the Weidman area. Our engineers figured out ways to make the rest of our distribution system take up  the Weidman load through tie lines we’ve been putting in place over the years. Our line crews, who know the distribution system so well from working on it day and night, suggested a few improvements. Our member services team notified people who might be affected; even our key accounts coordinator got involved, keeping in close contact with our large power users in the area as work progressed. Within two weeks of finding out there was a potential problem, the transformer was safely replaced with only a few minor power outages to report. We had the benefit of a strong tie-line system, due to years of work plan investments and attention to keeping our rights-of-way cleared. We also were fortunate to have a partner like Wolverine, with their mobile transformers that can fill in temporarily where needed while an expensive piece of equipment is replaced. Wolverine’s attention to detail, such as their proactive equipment testing, is a real asset in keeping your power flowing. This was an unusual situation. HomeWorks employees with over 30 years in the business had not seen this kind of issue with a substation transformer, although at least two other Michigan electric co-ops have had similar problems that did result in transformer fires and extended outages. Co-ops working together is more than one of the seven cooperative principles: it’s how we make sure our electric system is working reliably and affordably for you. ----- To download a pdf file of the September 2013 issue of Country Lines, including this column and the story it references, use this link: http://www.countrylines.com/~country1/images/PDF/2013/Sept-13/HomeWorks_Sept-13.pdf

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