NorthWestern Energy asks customers to communicate, even if they can't pay

NorthWestern Energy President and CEO Bob Rowe speaks to visitors and dignitaries in the lobby of the company's new customer service center May 5, 2018 during a ribbon-cutting event in Mitchell. (Marcus Traxler / Republic)

NorthWestern Energy's executives spoke to the South Dakota Public Utilities Commission Wednesday afternoon about the company's response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

During the conference call held on Zoom, those representing NorthWestern said while service disconnections for non-payment are currently suspended, customers who keep in contact with the company can anticipate having more leniency than those who don't when that suspension ends. The company provides electricity to 63,200 customers and 110 communities in South Dakota.

Disconnections were halted on March 14, and while specific terms haven't yet been worked out and likely won't be until South Dakota, North Dakota and Montana are past their peak number of coronavirus cases, Bobbi Schroeppel, NorthWestern's vice president of customer care, communications and human resources, said she expected that those who have been unable to make payments but have been in contact with Northwestern and made good-faith efforts will likely be able to carry a larger account balance.

"Call volumes are down significantly. A little interesting fact that I don't like: we saw, almost immediately, a 45 percent decrease in payment arrangements when we announced that we are not disconnecting until further notice," Schroeppel said. "So we are starting a very proactive, targeted outreach campaign to certain customers, really, really trying to work with us and not build up a large balance that they're not going to be able to handle when we resumed disconnecting for non-pay."

Schroeppel said the moratorium on non-payment disconnects will likely end when businesses reopen and people begin going back to work. There is currently no set end date, but she estimated it will last at least through the end of 2020.


Also a topic of discussion Wednesday was NorthWestern's plan to implement social distancing strategies among its employees during the pandemic. President and CEO Bob Rowe said while NorthWestern has plenty of experience dealing with emergency situations, COVID-19 presents a unique challenge in that it affects the entire area the company covers.

Schroeppel said the company had developed a pandemic plan during the 2009 H1N1 pandemic. Those strategies didn't end up being used at that time, Schroeppel said, but are being adopted now. Vice President of Retail Operations Curt Pohl said NorthWestern has generally been able to do all the same work to date, just in different ways.

Mike Cashell, vice president of transmission, and John Hines, vice president of energy supply, said about a third and half of their respective employees are now working from home. Groups of employees across the company who are unable to work remotely have been divided up as much as possible.

Pam Bonrud, NorthWestern's director of government and regulatory affairs for South Dakota, requested the commission communicate to the public the importance of keeping in touch with providers, even if their accounts have become delinquent.

"We do want to help. We're not here to be the big bullies," Bonrud said. "Reach out to us. Try to work with us on how we can help you with your current account situation."

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