Sustainable small towns and rural communities - How old-time electrical co-ops and group effort can cleanly energize rural small towns

Guest article by Brian DePew, executive director of Center for Rural Affairs, shared with their permission.

I tore a page out of my rural electric co-op newsletter last fall. It is pinned it to my wall. I read it every day. It says, “Electric co-ops were constructed with lines, poles, and the foolhardy notion that we all prosper by helping each other.”

It’s so true. The cooperative spirit that brought electric service to rural America represents the community-driven values of small towns – values the Center works to uphold today.

More than 900 rural electric coops serve 42 million people in 47 states. Co-ops remain democratically controlled, run by elected customer-members. But the co-ops have drifted from their community-oriented mission.

Increasingly, they rely disproportionately on coal for generation. Seventy percent of the power co-ops deliver comes from burning coal. The number has fallen to 37 percent nationwide. The ironies are three-fold.

Cost: Electric co-ops serve 327, or 93 percent, of the nation’s 353 counties suffering the deepest and most persistent poverty.

These counties would benefit from affordable electric rates and the economic development potential of developing renewable resources. As the cost of coal has risen and the cost of renewables has fallen, co-ops have failed to respond.

As a result, co-op electric rates are now 9 percent higher than neighboring utilities. Nationwide 350 co-ops charge 15 percent more, and 175 co-ops charge 30 percent more.

Opportunity: Rural electric coops are in a tremendous position to create economic opportunity by investing in local energy. Co-ops serve 75 percent of the nation’s land area, including a vast majority of the best wind and solar resources in the country.

Developing these resources would represent a direct investment in their communities. Take one small example. Research shows that every two megawatts of wind energy installed creates one job and increases county-level personal income by $22,000.

Money spent in the community stays in the community. Creating a resilient energy industry that will last decades into the future is one of the easiest and smartest steps a community can take to tackle long-term economic challenges.

Democratic Control: The democratically elected board members of these co-ops are in an enviable position to jump start economic growth.

As we travel the country, we hear a consistent theme. Many of you want to invest in renewable resources. You want your co-ops to invest in community-based wind, and you want your co-ops to work with you (not against you) to invest in farm and home-based energy systems.

Repeated public polling bears out the anecdotes. Rural people support greater development of renewable energy sources. They are even willing to pay more for the initial investment.

Yet, there is a disconnect between what you want and what your democratically controlled co-op delivers.

Renewing Spirit: This is why it is time to renew the community spirit that built co-ops. I believe in the foolhardy notion that we all prosper by helping each other. I know you do to.

Eighty years ago that meant coming together to sink poles in the ground and string lines between them. Today it means reinvigorating the democratic control of our local co-ops and harnessing the power of local energy development.

It starts in my community and in your community. You can run for your local co-op board. If you are already on your co-op board, get in touch. We are networking like-minded board members from across the country.

If you are a customer-member of a co-op, pick up the phone and tell your elected board you envision a future where co-ops invest closer to home, creating local opportunity.

Together, we’ll put the public back in the driver’s seat of rural electric co-ops. Call us foolhardy, if you wish. But we are not the only ones.


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