Keeping Low to the Ground

by Richard G. Johnstone Jr., Exec. Editor

Richard Johnstone

It’s doubtful that 2008 will be on anyone’s “best year of our lives” list, save for romantics whose eyes first locked on each other during ’08; parents who brought a blessed child into a cursedly difficult year; or TV networks whose airspace and coffers were filled with a bountiful harvest of political advertisements. The end of another long, tiring political campaign was perhaps one of the best things to happen in 2008, albeit at the very end of the year. But alas, that’s democracy for you — messy at times, sure, but ultimately the best system of government ever devised, because it’s the people themselves who set their own course.

And that’s exactly why electric cooperatives have been highly successful businesses for almost 75 years and counting, because ours is a business structure based on self-determination, with people working together to accomplish things that none could do alone. Every member-consumer of an electric cooperative is an equal partner in this enterprise, with an equal vote to elect board members, and to adopt or change bylaws. Because we’re not-for-profit businesses, millions of Americans for three generations have been able to receive affordable electricity in sparsely populated rural areas, small towns and emerging suburbs in 47 of our 50 states, including 13 regions of this Commonwealth.

And because we’re locally owned and locally controlled businesses, cooperatives have been able to provide electric service that is both reliable and responsive to our member-consumers’ needs. Because cooperative employees are part of the fabric of the communities we serve, they have a special stake in preserving the environment in these communities, because they live and work and play there, too.

And yet ... while electric cooperatives have helped make reliable, affordable electric service possible for 40 million Americans since the mid-1930s in areas that other utilities did not want to serve, our success has been a quiet success. The fact is, most folks in cities have never even heard of an electric cooperative, and even some cooperative member-consumers aren’t aware that they are owners as well as customers of their electric utility. And, of course, when the financial conditions of cooperatives allow it, we return to our owners their portion of any profits (we call them “margins”) from prior years of operation.

It’s interesting that this current time of economic stress and distress mirrors in some ways the cauldron in which electric cooperatives first were forged. Cooperatives were born during a time of great economic upheaval, during the heart of the Great Depression, as a way to bring farm families into the 20th century. During World War II, most cooperatives had to delay hooking up eager farm families because many of the materials used to build lines were instead going to the war effort. Electric cooperatives came of age during the 1950s, when most

cooperative members were still connected in some way to farming. Then our growth accelerated in the 1960s and has hardly slowed since, as most cooperative service areas have blossomed with homes and businesses and roads. Yet through it all, we’ve tried hard to stay true to our core mission. And that is this: to provide our member-consumers with reliable, affordable electric service in the safest, most environmentally sound way possible. Period.

Such a business structure, and such a business approach, may seem mundane, even boring, in a world where massive diversification, global reach, and constant growth are the mantras of business and industry. As we know from events of the past year, though, large, high-flying firms have farther to fall if their economic engine sputters, or fails altogether.

As we look deeper into 2009 and beyond, every American is hoping and praying for an economic recovery that is imminent, broad-based, and sustained.

And in this difficult environment, every electric cooperative member-consumer can take solace in the fact that, through good times and bad since the 1930s, your utility has continued to build on the strongest possible foundation — that of serving you and your fellow cooperative members.

Your cooperative will never be a high-flying business; as always, we will keep our center of gravity low to the ground, at a grassroots level, the better to understand your electric needs, as we work hard every day to meet them.  


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