Did you know one of the most cutting-edge places for technology is right up the road at your local electric cooperative?
That’s right! Innovation isn’t happening just in computer labs or on satellites rocketing into space. Electric co-ops lead the highly technical electric utility industry in such fast-changing areas as renewable energy and smart meter installation, allowing more efficient use of electricity.
While it may seem surprising to think of your electric co-op as a high-tech leader, rural utilities have uncovered solutions to modern problems for nearly 100 years.
Electric co-ops were created to solve one of the most basic but complex needs and desires: lighting up the darkness.
That legacy is 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 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 interested co-op members who buy shares of the project.
Electric vehicles are getting a boost from co-ops as well, with many utilities placing charging stations in public parks and other rural locations.
Just as co-ops first brought electricity to unserved rural areas nearly a century ago, many today are working to bring high-speed internet service to their local communities.
How it Began
In the early 20th century, America’s cities were being transformed by this new thing called electricity. But outside the municipal boundaries, people could only look with envy at the glow from over the horizon.
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 United States.
It wasn’t easy, especially at first. Cooperatives got a huge boost when, after getting the attention of some key politicians, the federal government created the Rural Electrification Administration.
The REA made loans available, helping finance expensive utility construction. It provided technical consulting, developing engineering techniques to carry electricity longer distances. The agency drew up model co-op bylaws and even went on the road with tent shows to demonstrate how to use the latest conveniences, such as electric ovens and washing machines.
A True Grassroots Movement
The biggest innovation is the co-op itself and the notion of a utility with only one mission: to improve life for its members, who are also its owners and 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.
Electric co-ops started forming as early as 1914. Formation of the REA in 1935 helped smooth the way forward.
Local community initiatives during the next three decades finally brought electric service to nearly everyone.
The electric co-op story is a true grassroots movement. The one characteristic that applies to them all is they care for and listen to the local members they serve.
For electric co-ops, one size does not fit all. Local residents are 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.
Electric Cooperatives at a Glance
Who They Are
Electric cooperatives are private, independent, not-for-profit electric utilities. They are owned and governed by the communities they serve and were established to provide at-cost electric service.
What They Do
Electric co-ops provide at-cost electric service to their consumer-members. Each co-op is locally governed by a board of directors elected annually by the members who own the co-op. Electric co-ops return excess revenue to their consumer-members in the form of captial credits.
Local co-ops help build community by engaging in development and revitalization projects in the communities they serve.
Who They Serve
Electric co-ops were formed to bring electricity to rural parts of America where other utilities wouldn’t go because they determined it was too expensive to serve. Nationwide, nearly 900 electric co-ops serve one in eight U.S. residents in rural and exurban communities.
Compared to other utilities, electric co-ops often provide electricity to areas with lower population density, lower median income and higher delivery costs per capita. In fact, co-ops serve 92% of the nation’s persistent poverty counties—those with more than a 20% poverty rate consistently during the past 30 years.
Many electric co-ops are working to improve broadband access in unserved and underserved communities. More than 150 are already pursuing diverse solutions to provide broadband service. An additional 100 are in the due diligence phase of studying how and whether they can be part of the solution to closing the digital divide in their areas.