We like the word local.
We like it because it’s the nearby hardware store where we can get what we need. It’s where we meet friends for coffee. It’s the shop where they look us in the eye and smile. It’s a word of warmth that makes us feel known.
Local also means your electric co-op. It’s as local as you and your neighbors because you own it. It’s grown and changed with you, possibly starting before you were even born. Because it’s made up of you and your neighbors, it’s as unique to each part of the country as you are. And it changes to help out with what’s going on in your community, whether that means bringing electricity to farmsteads 80 years ago, providing the community with access to high-speed internet or helping to navigate COVID-19 social distancing today.
October is National Co-op Month, and this year, it makes sense to use this time to recognize and celebrate the variety that is the essence of being local.
That local heritage for electric co-ops started in the 1930s with neighborly visits, often on horseback from one farm to the next, talking about the lights they could see in the city but didn’t have themselves. They weren’t likely to get those modern conveniences because no company saw a profit in stringing wires to power a few lightbulbs in a remote farmhouse.
No such thing as a typical co-op
So, the local farmers took matters into their own hands. They pooled $5 startup fees, organized member-owned, not-for-profit electric cooperatives, and convinced local politicians to create a federal loan program to help with the rest of the cost. They created what others didn’t see: one of the most efficient agricultural economies in the world and communities based around a variety of business and industry, from manufacturing to tourism.
Today, 900 electric co-ops provide electricity to more than 20 million businesses, homes, schools and farms. They cover more than half the land in the United States. They employ 68,000 people and invest $12 billion a year in local economies, contributing $88.4 billion to the nation’s Gross Domestic Product.
Because electric co-ops are so uniquely local, it’s hard to describe a typical co-op.
They’re big and small. The largest electric co-op serves nearly 350,000 members; the smallest, 113.
They’re in metropolitan and non-metropolitan areas. While the electric co-op rural heritage meant they don’t serve cities, many of their communities have grown over the decades. About 40% serve counties classified as rural and 60% classified as metropolitan. Another way to look at that variety is by the average number of members served by each mile of its power lines. The co-op with the densest population serves 78 members for each mile of line. The most remote co-op averages less than one person per mile of line.
While those numbers reflect the variety and uniqueness of who co-ops serve, what they do also matters.
Less pollution, more renewable energy
As co-op members became more aware of environmental priorities, co-ops focused on reducing power plant emissions. From 2009 to 2016 co-ops reduced greenhouse gas emissions by 8%, nitrogen oxide emissions by 24% and Sulphur dioxide emissions by 66%. Co-ops also launched energy efficiency programs, many offering home and business ‘energy checkups’ to make sure members got the best value for their energy dollar.
Electric co-ops are helping power the growth in alternative energy. They pioneered in the development of community solar, which allows co-op members to participate in renewable energy without the expense and effort of installing solar panels on their own property. Co-op solar capacity has more than quadrupled in the past five years. Seventeen percent of co-op electricity now comes from hydroelectric power, solar, wind and other renewable sources.
High-speed internet service is increasingly required for a vibrant local economy, so co-ops around the country are exploring ways their members can get connected. In 2018, Kansas’ Statewide Broadband Expansion Planning Task Force was established to help identify opportunities and potential funding sources to expand broadband infrastructure and increase statewide access to broadband services. Kansas Electric Cooperative Inc.’s Doug Shepherd, vice president of management consulting services, serves on the task force.
And now that we’re all faced with the fallout from the effects of COVID-19, electric co-ops are again on the job as the virus changes everything from the national economy to how we say hello to our neighbors.
Electric co-ops are developing payment plans for people out of work. They’re socially distancing line crews. They’re setting up drive-in or virtual membership meetings, and offering virtual energy audits.
The world keeps changing, and electric co-ops will continue to adapt. Each co-op’s approach may differ, but they’ll do whatever it takes to adapt in ways that make the most sense for the people in their community. That’s what it means to be a local electric co-op.
Paul Wesslund writes on consumer and cooperative affairs for the National RuralElectric Cooperative Association, the national trade association representing more than 900 local electric cooperatives. From growing suburbs to remote farming communities, electric co-ops serve as engines of economic development for 42 million Americans across 56 percent of the nation’s landscape.