Umatilla Electric, Community Weather 2020’s Storms Together

Crews work through dangerous conditions to restore the UEC system following historic flooding in February 2020.

Weathering the storm was a familiar theme heard during Saturday’s 84th Annual Meeting of the Umatilla Electric Cooperative.

The theme played out both literally and figuratively throughout the past year. Both UEC General Manager and CEO Robert Echenrode and Board President Bryan Wolfe talked about the many challenges the cooperative and community face together during historic floods and a historic pandemic.

“During 2020, in our community and cooperative, events that usually happen once a century, or once a generation, seemed to occur every other month,” said Wolfe, citing among other events a January blizzard in which UEC line workers helped ferry rescue teams to stranded motorists on Weston Mountain.


Echenrode highlighted UEC’s response to the pandemic and efforts to keep employees safe and power on for the community.

“Responding to the governor’s order to ‘Stay home, save lives,’ we sent one third of our staff home last spring to remotely accomplish the thousands of daily tasks needed to keep our business running smoothly,” he said. “Our line workers remained in the field to maintain power lines, respond to outages, connect hundreds of new residential services, and support our irrigators as they put food on everyone’s table – all, while taking added safety precautions to limit the spread of Covid-19.”

Wolfe talked about UEC’s decision not to shut off power due to delinquent payments and the support of others in providing assistance to those in need.

“As the number of those unable to pay for electric service rose sharply in 2020, so did the generosity of all who donated to our assistance funds,” sai Wolfe. “Notably, Amazon Web Services, by donating their Capital Credits refund to the community, provided enough to cover the average energy bills for 1,000 households for two months.

“In a time of economic need, we were grateful to be able to expand our UCARE assistance funds and provide a combined $7.6 million in Capital Credit refunds to members in April and December.”

Wolfe also spoke Saturday of a variety of ways in which UEC gave back to the community including:

  • Providing a grant to the new Boardman Food Pantry, and annual donations to all food banks in the area.
  • Funding an aerial drone for Umatilla County Search and Rescue
  • Purchasing market animals at the virtual county youth livestock auctions when the in-person auctions were canceled
  • Helping Hermiston Campus Life toward the purchase of a youth transportation van
  • Helping Pilot Rock Little League rebuild a ballfield damaged by flooding
  • Providing the East Umatilla County Rural Fire Department with protective equipment
  • Helping the Stanfield Community Center with a commercial kitchen remodel
  • Purchasing yearbooks for every graduating Irrigon Senior High senior
  • Providing $42,000 in scholarships to college-bound students

Echenrode also highlighted infrastructure improvements during the past year, including expanding substations serving industrial loads in the Boardman-Umatilla-Hermiston areas, and acquiring a fourth mobile substation to respond quickly to new projects while more permanent facilities become available.

UEC is also currently building a switchyard east of Boardman, along I-84, to give it more flexibility to serve members and integrate renewable resources. It will also increase reliability and service to all customer classes in the Boardman area.

The cooperative also recently completed two regional irrigation pipelines delivering Columbia River water that is expected to lead to thousands of new jobs, tens of thousands of newly-irrigated acres, and millions of dollars in new business activity to the area.

UEC also energized two new substations – one, southeast of Boardman and another east of Hermiston, and rebuilt two others at Boardman in 2020.

“Today, we are putting final touches on two more substations in the Butter Creek and Despain Gulch areas,” said Echenrode.

Little of the accomplishments of the past year would be possible without a strong financial foundation, said Echenrode.

“Staying ahead of power demand is a challenge as we finance, construct, and maintain our existing 2,300 miles of the UEC system,” he said. UEC’s Annual Report highlights how the cooperative “is providing service at some of the lowest rates and greatest value among the nation’s 800-plus electric cooperatives. Our revenue, per kilowatt-hour, is less than half of the average electric cooperative and our total cost of electric service is the lowest in the U.S. at 4.48 cents.”

Echenrode said UEC is continually exploring new ways to serve its customers in the most cost effective and responsible way possible.

“A major example is buying wholesale power, which makes up more than 70 percent of our cost of doing business,” he said. After years of planning, UEC began acquiring its own power resources independently on Oct. 1.

Why the change?

“Over the past decade, as Bonneville Power capped its supply of low cost and carbon free power to utilities, UEC has increasingly relied on buying power to meet our needs from other independent suppliers,” he said. “Although Bonneville is our largest single energy supplier, it is no longer our sole energy supplier. The added flexibility of independently buying power brings us exciting new opportunities in seeking the best value for our members and controls our single greatest expense impacting your energy bill.”