Providing power beyond electricity
By Nancy Nixon
Cheri White, General Manager of Cooperative Balloon Associates, Inc., and Chief Touchstone Energy Hot Air Balloon Pilot, back center, hams it up with an enthusiastic group during a balloon visit at RAGBRAI in Iowa.
First graders from River Ridge Elementary School in Hanover proudly show off certificates they earned after receiving training from Heidi Weber, Manager of Member Relations and Community Development (upper left), Jo-Carroll Energy, and CFL Charlie to become official Touchstone Energy “Energy Savers.”
Kurt and LouAnn Dreger, shown with son Cameron, are owners of Java Hut and Tanning Salon in Savanna and proud participants in the Touchstone Energy Co-op Connections program.
Since the 1930s, electric cooperatives have provided power to the rural areas, but equally important they have been solid stewards of their communities, providing good jobs and services not offered by any other entity. But cooperatives don’t profit by selling electricity. The needs of their members are growing, and the ability to expand their offerings is limited. The answer lies in the power of cooperation, and Touchstone Energy® has emerged as the tool to harness that power.
Building since 1998 on a foundation of four core values — integrity, accountability, innovation and commitment to community — the Touchstone Energy brand has emerged as a resource like no other. By pooling their resources, the more than 720 cooperative members nationwide now offer more than 40 programs and services to better serve their members.
The first of the Touchstone Energy four-core values is integrity — doing the right thing. The price of most goods and services has been impacted by high fuel prices, including the price of electricity. Touchstone Energy developed the Co-op Connections program to help co-op members save money on goods and services, including prescription drugs. Co-op Connections cards are provided free to members of cooperatives that participate in the program. Local businesses are signed up to provide discounts on goods and services to cardholders, and unlike many member loyalty cards, cardholders can take advantage of more than 20,000 local deals offered across the country and more than 100 national deals.
Heidi Weber, Manager of Member Relations & Community Development at Jo-Carroll Energy in Elizabeth says, “If I had to pick one program that offers our members the most value, I’d have to say it’s the Co-op Connections Card Program. The national discounts are awesome, and we’re able to offer local businesses in our area a great marketing tool to drive sales.”
Local businesses are singing the card program’s praises, too. One of the many vendors that supports the Co-op Connections program in Jo-Carroll’s service area is Java Hut Coffee & Tanning in Savanna. Owners Kurt and LouAnn Dreger say that since Jo-Carroll’s promotion of its Co-op Connections vendors in the co-op’s newsletter, many people have mentioned that they didn’t realize how many things the Dreger’s business offered. Karl Stodden, who owns a construction company in Galena, says he likes the additional free exposure for his business, and Jane Hayen, owner of Healthy Touch Massage & Salon in Mt. Carroll, says she also appreciates the no-cost promotional benefit.
For many rural residents, prescription costs have become unmanageable. A growing number of them have no insurance, or they may have insurance but their plan doesn’t cover prescription drugs. In May 2007, Touchstone Energy added a prescription discount benefit to the Co-op Connections program, and it’s changing lives. The card is accepted at 60,000 national chain and local pharmacies across the country. The average savings across the country is around 37 percent.
Weber says, “Probably the greatest moment for me was about three months into the program. I had a phone call from a member in Savanna. Her family’s insurance did not have prescription drug coverage and she was paying over $600 a month for one specific drug her child needed. She wasn’t sure just how great the savings might be with her new card, but when she walked in the pharmacy she was overjoyed to find out that her savings was just over 45 percent.”
It’s easy to see how successful a benefit is when the results are in black and white. Weber adds, “Currently, our members are averaging 33 percent savings on their prescription drugs with a cumulative average savings of nearly $4,000 each month. We haven’t hit $100,000 yet, but we’re aiming to reach that amount by 2012.”
To date, cooperative members across the country have saved $32.4 million on prescriptions. In Illinois it’s approaching the $900,000 mark.
As an innovative bonus, the Co-op Connections program just introduced its iPhone and Droid applications, which allow users to display a virtual card, both front and back, from their smart phones. The app can be downloaded through iTunes. Through this option, “techy” users can use the virtual card to receive discounts, look up local and national deals and search other features.
The second of the four core values is accountability. Accountability is a promise co-ops make to their members that they’ll be dependable. Touchstone Energy has enlisted assistance from the American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI) for improving the level of member service.
According to Bryce Cramer, District Office and Member Services Manager, Egyptian Electric Cooperative in Murphysboro, “This nationally recognized scoring tool helps us [cooperatives] measure our members’ satisfaction with our performance. Through regular use we can determine if we are improving or declining, and we can compare our ranking with others in our industry.”
Co-ops are surveyed quarterly on a national level and biennially in Illinois. In April, the average national ACSI score for Touchstone Energy cooperatives was 83, and the average for all electric cooperatives was an 82, topping all other electric utilities. The average ACSI score for investor-owned-utilities, such as Com Ed and Ameren, was a 74. But co-ops aren’t resting on their laurels. Their goal is 100 percent member satisfaction.
To help the co-ops reach that lofty goal, Touchstone Energy introduced the Balanced Performance Scorecard. The scorecard takes into consideration a cooperative’s performance in its four most critical areas — member satisfaction, safety, system reliability and cost.
“This program allows us to do an internal examination of our performance and compare it to that of other electric cooperatives of the same size. We can easily determine which areas need improvement,” says Cramer. Cooperatives can also be compared to other co-ops in their region and across the country.
The third Touchstone Energy core value is innovation. In keeping with that value, Touchstone Energy has expanded its technological offerings. An example is www.togetherwesave.com. Through this site, visitors can learn how the simplest changes can save money on their monthly electric bills. Visitors are engaged in energy efficiency interactive applications that are linked to a virtual home tour. With the completion of each application, they can track their cumulative savings. The site also offers a host of energy saving tips and “how-to” videos such as how to use caulking to seal cracks in their homes or install insulation.
Other aspects of the site include an energy saving forum where consumers can share their energy saving experiences and a variety of energy efficiency links and resources.
“Whether it’s unplugging unused appliances or adding an extra layer of insulation in the attic, what we’re showing is how simple these energy-saving techniques are, so that the end-use consumer goes from just thinking about changing some of their habits to actually taking action,” says Touchstone Energy COO Jim Bausell. The site continues to expand its offerings, so even if you have already visited the website, stop in again and see what’s new.
The fourth Touchstone Energy core value is commitment to community. Next to delivering electricity to members, co-ops are known for their strong community presence. As deep cuts in federal and state funding continue to plague rural school systems, Touchstone Energy has helped provide programs and training to supplement efforts in the classroom.
One such program is the Super Energy Saver classroom kit for grades K-5. The program materials provide lessons about electricity, electrical safety, energy savings and renewable energy. Students can become “Super Energy Savers” by taking a checklist home and walking through their house with their parents to identify potential energy saving measures. The kits include everything necessary to teach a course: a teacher’s guide, activity booklets, the checklists, folders, light switch covers and even individual certificates for the kids following completion of the course. To add to the entertainment value and learning experience, the CFL Charlie mascot (pictured on this month’s magazine cover) often visits the classroom and interacts with the students.
Weber says that in the past two years she’s reached more than 600 students through the program. “It’s always so fun to run into the students at the grocery store or at a fair and hear them say ‘that’s the lady that talked about CFL Charlie!’ I tailor each lesson to assist teachers and enhance their current lesson plans.”
Touchstone Energy Classroom Empowerment grants have been providing other classroom assistance exclusively in Illinois since 2006. Through this program, teachers from schools in cooperative territories can apply to receive $500 grants for qualifying projects. The projects are graded based on their level of innovation and financial need. Jerri Schaefer, Director of Communication, Southern Illinois Electric Cooperative in Dongola, says, “Touchstone Energy has helped our cooperative assist our local schools like never before. We are very proud of our commitment to community efforts, and with programs such as Super Energy Savers and especially with our Classroom Empowerment Grants, we know we are making a significant difference in the lives of so many children and teachers in southern Illinois.”
Schaefer says that one of the most interesting projects her co-op has funded was awarded to Melissa Thomasson at Jefferson Elementary School in Metropolis. Thomasson used the funding for a mystery science festival called “The Case of the Missing Cookies.” For the duration of the festival Thomasson’s 2nd and 3rd graders became detectives. They learned the necessary elements involved in solving a crime. This included data gathering, analyzing details such as fingerprints, DNA, handwriting, footprints and other elements used in searching for clues to someone’s identity. Through running a bake sale, they learned about handling money and using a checkbook, and yes, in the end they found the missing cookies.
“Words cannot begin to express what an exciting week we had thanks to the $500 grant we received! What started out in my mind to be a one-day mystery quickly became a week of “lessons” and a full one-day mystery to solve using the skills the students had learned in our detective lessons,” said Thomasson. To date, the co-ops have provided grants to 51 projects totaling nearly $39,000. Co-ops that participate in the program will be selecting six more $500 grants yet this year.
Co-ops play a part in their local communities’ economic development by bringing new industry, retail establishments and jobs to their service territories. Touchstone Energy’s Sites Across America program is a national clearinghouse of properties located in areas served by electric cooperatives. According to Aaron Ridenour, Manager of Marketing and Economic Development of Prairie Power in Jacksonville, and a member of the national Touchstone Energy board of directors, “[The] SitesAcrossAmerica.com [website] is a unique asset for site selection consultants and corporate executives looking for sites and buildings.” With more than 430 sites and buildings listed on the website sold or leased, the program’s success speaks for itself.
You may have noticed a Touchstone Energy Hot Air Balloon® tethered at an event or in flight. Ridenour is also President of Cooperative Balloon Associates, which is comprised of 10 Illinois co-ops that own the balloons and administer the balloon program. At 75 feet high, 60 feet wide, and filled with 77,000 cubic feet of hot air, the beautiful, brightly colored balloons are hard to miss.
The balloons and their crews serve as goodwill ambassadors, spreading the word about the Touchstone Energy program and providing general education about electric cooperatives. Since the inception of the hot air balloon program in 2000, more than 320 cooperatives in 39 states have enlisted its services. For each balloon appearance a donation is made to a local charity, and to date those contributions exceed $100,000.
The Touchstone Energy programs and services highlighted in this article represent only a fraction of the brand’s offering for both co-ops and co-op members. And many new ideas are already in the works for the future. As co-ops, we may not have control over regulatory issues and soaring oil prices, but rest assured we’ll continue to deliver power for the lowest price possible and that Touchstone Energy will be right there for you and your community. You have the power on your side — the power of the cooperative alliance and the power of human connections.
For more information about Touchstone Energy, log on at www.touchstoneenergy.coop or contact your local electric cooperative.