July 2021, Vol. 246, No. 7

Features

How MEA Revisited Strategic Imperatives to Maintain Its Mission

By MEA Energy Association (MEA)  

Since March 2020, businesses have been closing, pivoting, or returning to a new normal. MEA Energy Association (MEA), a trade association serving natural gas and electric utilities across the United States, is no exception.  

When in-person trainings and conferences halted, calls for social justice rose to the forefront, the presidential election hung in the balance, and screen fatigue set in, MEA leaders recognized the need to assess and adapt to best serve their members.  

The challenges were both tactical and strategic. How would MEA provide technical education virtually? How would MEA help connect members virtually? How would MEA provide value now and in the future to an industry that is both necessary and changing? And, ultimately, how would a trade association fare during this time of economic, public health, and existential crises? 

By August 2020, MEA deployed a six-question, open-ended exercise called the Foresight Imperative to the board of directors. The questions were adapted from a workshop by Jeff DeCagna of Foresight First, an organization that helps associations and non-profits take this work to the next level by providing actionable insights on probable futures. 

The board was asked to answer the following questions as if it were Dec. 31, 2025, the middle of the decade:  

  • Looking back from that vantage point, describe how the last five years unfolded and specifically how the COVID-19 pandemic shaped society and the industry, profession, or field you serve?  
  • Which three other forces of turbulence (beyond the pandemic) do you believe have had the most significant impact on society and the energy industry, and why?  
  • Which current and future stakeholders were most profoundly affected (beneficially and/or detrimentally) by what happened during the first half of the 2020 decade, and how?  
  • What is your association’s purpose, i.e., the most compelling rationale for its existence?   
  • What three beneficial actions can your association take during this five-year period to (a) provide meaningful support to stakeholders and (b) make progress toward fulfilling the purpose?  
  • What learning does your association need to pursue to move forward with the three meaningful actions you have identified?  

The information was compiled, grouped, and shared with the Executive Committee and Strategy Committee of the board.  

“At this point, because of the thoughtful, insightful, and direct responses provided by the board members, we had identified around 10 possible strategic topics and opportunities ranging from remote work resources to regulatory advocacy,” said MEA President Patrick Van Beek.  

After a one-day working session with the board committees, MEA staff put forth five initiatives for consideration and approval by the full board of directors: Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI); electric vehicles (EV); learning technology; renewable energy; and workforce recruitment.  

Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion: The general context of this topic concerned social justice, racism, and deeper connections to the communities we serve. The opportunity to work to improve the social and economic status of minority communities is mentioned in the exercise several times. 

Electric Vehicles: Responses focused on utility personnel that companies utilize as resources for electric vehicle infrastructure (ex., the distribution network, charging stations, etc.). The primary issues include EV and related distribution network technology limitations & development, load & infrastructure impact, customer choice, charging station infrastructure (residential and commercial), emissions impact, battery storage, and expanded utilization of utility transmission, distribution, and generation assets. 

Learning Technology: The responses to the exercise indicate that the way our association presents all types of learning, training, information sharing, and networking will be significantly changed by the pandemic. The most significant drivers of the change are remote employees, changed attitudes, and cost savings associated with in-person meetings, training, and hands-on training. Different forms of access to MEA content will need to be developed to accommodate member learning. 

Renewable Energy: The board members see this increasing in importance and impacting our future well beyond the next decade. Renewables are broad in scope and primarily driven by de-carbonization, climate change action, and green energy activism. Secondary drivers include energy consumption choices, both type and volume that are connected to technology, including batteries, storage, and microgrid activity. Renewable natural gas and the potential evolution of current natural gas systems to utilize hydrogen would be included in this initiative. 

Workforce Recruitment: The survey responses mention the need to recruit new personnel into the workforce numerous times. The board members shared challenges related to overall awareness of good jobs in the industry, candidate drop-out rates, and failure to meet pre-employment requirements. Board members acknowledge that any recruiting efforts need to be at the grassroots level within the communities the energy delivery companies serve. Recruitment campaigns provide the opportunity to engage with diverse segments of society. 

MEA Chair John Webster, director natural gas division at Hutchinson Utilities Commission, said that input and guidance from member companies was the necessary next step.  

“Board members and additional personnel from member companies were identified to serve on “champion teams” for each initiative with the purpose of brainstorming, researching, and developing a recommendation for if and how to move forward,” he said. 

Throughout 2021 representatives from the following distribution utilities and vendors are working together on the champion teams to assess their needs over a series of four focused meetings: Ameren; Black Hills Corporation; Border States; CenterPoint Energy; City Utilities of Springfield; ComEd; Consumers Energy; DTE Energy; Duke Energy; Evergy, Inc.; GROEBNER; Henkels & McCoy Shared Services; Hutchinson Utilities Commission; Liberty Utilities; Madison Gas and Electric Company; MidAmerican Energy Company; Nelson Technologies, Inc.; Nicor Gas; NiSource, Inc.; NorthWestern Energy; Primera Engineers; SENSIT Technologies; Spire; Upper Peninsula Power Company; WEC Energy Group; Xcel Energy. 

“MEA’s core focus is training, professional development, information sharing, and connecting people,” Van Beek further explains. “These teams are seeking to answer whether or not the initiative is related to our mission, if we can create something unique and of value, and if pursuing it will put MEA on a path to a different future.” 

Stay tuned as MEA evolves and innovates around these initiatives while remaining true to their mission of empowering the energy industry through education, leadership development, and industry connections.   

About MEA: MEA serves the people that deliver electricity and natural gas to homes and businesses. We were founded as a trade association over 115 years ago by distribution utilities whose vision was to improve safety and efficiency. Today, we fulfill the same purpose through education, leadership development, and industry connections. Energy delivery companies, contractors, and suppliers around the country benefit from our 55 summits, roundtables, and webinars, 400-plus online technical courses, safety assessments, evaluator training, operator qualification compliance tools, and leadership courses for field personnel. 

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