Editorial

You'll Always Have a Voice
by Richard G. Johnstone Jr., Editor


Richard Johnstone

Electric choice begins in parts of Virginia this coming January 1, and is set to be completed in all corners of the Commonwealth by January 1, 2004. Many if not most businesses, and perhaps some homeowners as well, will be able to choose their electricity supplier — the company that provides the actual electricity that flows into their home or business. The company that delivers the electricity — the distribution company — will remain the same, and there are no laws in place or plans anticipated to change that.

For consumer-owners of electric cooperatives, that’s good news indeed, because cooperatives, individually and collectively, have among the best records anywhere for reliable delivery of service. And that won’t change.

Then again, especially for smaller users of electricity, other things may not actually change either. You see, allowing electric choice doesn’t necessarily mean that everyone — especially smaller consumers — will  have a choice of supplier. Confused?

Well you’re not alone. Virginia is one of about half the states of the union that have adopted laws restructuring the electric utility industry to allow consumer’s to choose their supplier. As of today, less than 1 percent of residential customers and about 1.4 percent of commercial customers have switched suppliers. Why such low numbers? Well, in part because this brave new world of electric supply is still in its infancy, and lots of folks — customers and suppliers — are being cautious. Electricity is, after all, one of the absolute necessities of modern life and many are loathe to change their supplier unless they’ve had problems.

Also, many consumers are hesitant to switch given the nightmare going on in California, where a fatally flawed restructuring law and weather extremes were introduced into a state where growth in demand had been outstripping growth in supply for over a decade. A recipe for disaster? That seems to be the case out West, and avoiding those problems is exactly why many utilities — including cooperative power supplier Old Dominion Electric Cooperative — are building or planning to build new electric generation facilities over the next few years.

But despite a seemingly adequate and growing supply of electricity in Virginia, there don’t seem to be any alternative suppliers interested in selling electricity to residential and small business consumers. And that’s not just the case in Virginia, it’s the case in virtually every state that has introduced competition in power supply.

And it’s absolutely the case for electric cooperative consumers. At this point, there are no competitive suppliers anywhere in the country actively selling electricity to consumers of electric cooperatives. And that’s why we say that “choice” has quote marks around it, because it isn’t really choice unless there are two or more suppliers vying for the business of electric consumers.

And the reason these other suppliers are not interested in selling electricity to cooperative consumers (at least at this point) is because there’s no profit to be made, or at least not enough to justify their marketing efforts. Which proves the truth of the old saying that “what goes around comes around”: the same lack of interest in serving rural and suburban homes and small businesses is precisely what led folks in over a dozen Virginia communities — and in over a thousand communities nationwide — to create electric cooperatives two generations ago, in the 1930s and ’40s. It was and is a case of folks doing for themselves what no one else would do for them.

As restructuring unfolds over the next two-plus years, please remember three things.

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First, your electric cooperative will continue to be your supplier as long as there are no other suppliers.

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Second, if or when there are other suppliers, and if you choose one of them, your cooperative will continue to deliver the electricity to your home or business, as it’s always done.

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And third, even if there are other suppliers, your electric cooperative will continue to supply you with electricity, at cost, as it’s always done, if that’s what you wish. 

Cooperatives are different from other types of utilities. The electricity is provided at cost. The consumers are the owners.

You may or may not ever have a choice of electric supplier. But you’ll always have a voice at your local electric cooperative.

 

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