As someone still relatively new to the cooperative world, the celebration of Cooperative Month in October has a special meaning. My first five months working for Kansas Electric Cooperatives, Inc. has been spent mostly on the road, meeting with the electric co-ops’ management, staff and board of trustees. What I’m learning about your local electric cooperative can’t be found by a simple Google search of “cooperative business model” or “how electric cooperatives differ from investor-owned utilities.” It must be experienced in person, though masked and social distanced for the time being.
We often joke in the co-op world that once you’ve seen one co-op, you’ve seen one co-op. One size does not fit all when it comes to Kansas electric cooperatives because it’s the people, the businesses, and the communities they serve that shape each co-op and form its unique personality. While some co-ops serve mostly residential, small businesses and farming operations, other co-ops’ membership comprises mostly small and large industrial enterprises.
The similarities, however, are unmistakable and I believe can be described in two words: community partnership. It’s my abbreviated and simplified version of the seven cooperative principles and values that guide co-ops around the world.
They are why electric co-ops differ from other utilities as they put the needs of their consumer-members and communities first.
If this wasn’t apparent prior to 2020, the pandemic and the co-ops’ response to it certainly brought this difference to the forefront. When COVID-19 crept into everyone’s vernacular in early March, Kansas electric co-ops immediately mobilized to protect their consumer-members and staff. Annual meetings, which bring hundreds of consumer-members together under one roof and generally take place in the spring, were rescheduled or reinvented. Any board elections that were required to commence did so using mail-in balloting, drive-up voting or occurred at actual movie drive-in venues to capture the camaraderie and fellowship annual meetings offer. Although each co-op determined the best solution for their membership resulting in assorted variations of annual meetings across the state, collectively the co-ops’ focus was identical: to take care of the people and the communities they serve.
The economic fallout from the pandemic prompted Kansas electric co-ops to develop creative ways to assist their consumer-members through the difficult economic hardships. Some co-ops’ board of trustees approved early capital credit payouts as bill credits on their consumer-members’ electric bills to help ease the burden for those out of work. Other co-ops established funds to assist consumer-members who were struggling to pay their bills. And co-ops continue to set up payment plans that work for both the consumer-members and the co-ops to maintain economic stability, as much as possible, for all parties.
I recognize the hardships for many Kansans are far from over and more unknowns await. I do know the co-ops will face these challenges and make decisions based on the best interests of their consumer-members and communities — their neighbors.
As I write this, Gulf Coast electric cooperatives in Alabama, Florida, Louisiana and Mississippi were planning disaster response to anticipated widespread damage and outages on the heels of two hurricanes. Kansas electric cooperatives pledged their support to the effort and were on standby to provide mutual aid in the affected areas. This is one of countless ways cooperatives support each other’s efforts and the needs of all our rural communities across this great country.
So, when asked “what exactly is an electric cooperative?” My answer: Your community partner. It’s really that simple.