The electric co-op history of innovation
by Paul Wesslund, Contributing Columnist
Innovation isn’t happening just in computer labs or on satellites rocketing into space. Electric co-ops are making sure of that. They lead the highly technical electric utility industry in areas such as renewable energy and installation of smart meters.
While it may seem surprising to think of your electric co-op as a high-tech leader, it’s an approach that has been solving problems for nearly 100 years.
LIGHT OUT OF DARKNESS
Electric co-ops were created to solve one of the most basic and complex of needs and desires — bringing light to the darkness.
That legacy still works today, and it’s why time is set aside each October to recognize National Co-op Month. It’s a reminder that business succeeds not just through competition, but also through cooperation.
As a result of the member-owned cooperative form of business, co-ops stand out in many areas of the electric utility industry.
They lead the way in community solar, an initiative in which the co-op utility builds a solar array supported by members who buy shares of the project.
Electric vehicles are getting a boost from co-ops, as well, with many placing charging stations in public parks and rural locations.
And, just as co-ops first brought electricity to unserved rural areas nearly a century ago, many of them are working to bring high-speed internet service to their local communities.
THE GREAT TRANSFORMATION
In the early part of the last century, electricity was transforming America’s cities. But setting poles and stringing power lines miles outside of town for one or two customers was deemed too expensive.
Luckily, go-getters in America’s rural communities believed they could solve the problems that kept the power companies from connecting them to modern society.
They called their friends and neighbors together and started forming their own utilities. They were community-based organizations, democratically run, not-for-profit businesses called cooperatives. Today, there are more than 900 electric co-ops in the U.S.
It wasn’t easy, especially at first. They got a huge boost when President Franklin D. Roosevelt authorized creation of the Rural Electrification Administration in 1935.
The REA made loans available, provided technical consulting and developed engineering techniques to carry electricity longer distances. The agency drew up model co-op bylaws and went on the road with tent shows to demonstrate how to use the latest conveniences like electric ovens and washing machines.
A TRUE GRASSROOTS MOVEMENT
But the biggest innovation is simply the co-op itself, and the notion of a utility with only one mission — to make life better for its members, who are also its customers.
Electric co-ops didn’t spring from a national directive or organization. They are truly homegrown products of what local people wanted for their community. The story of electric co-ops is of a true, grassroots movement of unique, homegrown organizations. The one characteristic that applies to all of them is that they care for and listen to the local members they serve.
For electric co-ops, one size does not fit all — it’s the local community that’s in charge. In recognizing that every one of us is different, co-ops make both an electric connection, and a human connection.
That’s a truly powerful innovation.
Paul Wesslund writes on consumer and cooperative affairs for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association.