It may not have had the drama, or
human spectacle, or media coverage, of the annual countdown that sees Times
Square revelers calling out the final seconds before an old year dies and a
new one begins, full of promise and possibilities. But it was still pretty
darn exciting for Rappahannock Electric Cooperative and Shenandoah Valley
Electric Cooperative, as May 31 at 11:59:59 p.m. rolled into 12 midnight on
June 1, 2010, and Virginia’s electric cooperative family added about 102,000
new members to the fold. And a large fold it is, too, with Virginia’s 13
locally owned electric cooperatives now serving more than 490,000 homes and
businesses, or over 1.2 million Virginians.
This growth came about when the two cooperatives acquired
the Virginia service territory of Potomac Edison, which includes portions of
14 counties in the northern Shenandoah Valley, the largest concentration
being in Frederick County and the city of Winchester.
As a unit, Virginia’s 13 cooperatives now constitute the
second-largest electricity provider in the state. This is a far cry from the
birth of electric cooperatives in the mid-1930s. Back then, most American
cities had been enjoying the benefits of electric service since early in the
20th century. By contrast, only 10 percent of farm families had electricity,
due to the high cost of serving less-populated areas.
Then, with a bold pen stroke in May 1935, President
Franklin D. Roosevelt made electricity available and affordable for the
first time to rural Americans. He did so by creating a federal agency, the
Rural Electrification Administration (REA), to provide low-cost loans and
technical assistance to hundreds of rural citizen groups across the country,
enabling them to form cooperatives and provide themselves with electricity.
Almost 1,000 cooperatives were formed in almost every
state over the next few years. And America’s rural areas were literally
fast-forwarded from a land of manual labor using 19th-century tools and
techniques into a land of labor-saving appliances and approaches using
20th-century electrical know-how.
This electric cooperative movement took hold early-on in
Virginia. In June of 1936, Shenandoah Valley received its charter as
Virginia’s first rural electric cooperative. Two months
later, in August, Farmers Rural Utilities of Bowling Green, a predecessor to
Rappahannock Electric Cooperative, energized the first REA-financed power
line in Virginia, and provided electric service to 73 farm families who had
previously been forced to rely on kerosene lamps for light, iceboxes for
refrigeration, wood stoves for cooking, and washboards for cleaning clothes.
A lot has changed in the 75 years since electric
cooperatives began. Electricity is no longer viewed as an exciting blessing
in rural areas; it’s an assumed, and essential, part of daily life.
Virginia’s rural areas have changed dramatically, too, with many-fold new
residents, the expansion of towns and cities, shifts from agriculture to
service-based industries, the emergence of computer-based home businesses,
and ribbons of hard-surface road that have turned day-long trips into daily
And yet, much about electric cooperatives remains the
same. Cooperatives are owned and controlled by the members. These
member-owners are represented by a board of directors elected from and by
the membership. Every member has an equal vote in business matters. Service
is provided at cost, since cooperatives are not-for-profit. And, if any
funds are left over at the end of a business year, they are allocated back
to the member-owners based on patronage.
So, from 1936 till 2010, across three generations and
through incalculable societal and technological changes, the cooperative
mission has held firm: to provide each member-owner with the best possible
service at the lowest possible cost.
To these 102,000 new cooperative members, we say: Welcome,
to a utility you own, serving the community where you live, and run by
people who, like you, proudly call this community their home.