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Co-ops and the Local Communities They Serve

  • Posted: 09.22.2020
Photo collage of cooperative members with the national cooperative month logo #PowerOn

We like the word local.

Local also means your electric co-op. It’s as local as you and your neighbors because you own it. It’s grown and changed with you, possibly starting before you were even born. Because it’s made up of you and your neighbors, it’s as unique to each part of the country as you are. And it changes to help out with what’s going on in your community, whether that means bringing electricity to farmsteads 80 years ago, providing the community with access to high-speed internet, helping to restore power during widespread storm events, or even finding new ways to connect with you during the COVID-19 pandemic.

October is National Co-op Month, and this year, our theme is #PowerOn. It makes sense to use this time to recognize and celebrate the cooperative business model that promotes coming together to serve our members and our communities.

Photo image of hay bales in a rural landscape at dusk

The electric cooperative heritage The local heritage for electric co-ops started in the 1930s with neighborly visits, often on horseback from one farm to the next. Members of rural farm communities talked about the lights they could see in the city but didn’t have themselves. They weren’t likely to get those modern conveniences because no company saw a profit in stringing wires to power a few light bulbs in a remote farmhouse.

That's why electric cooperatives came into being: to provide electricity to those rural areas where for-profit electric companies didn't provide service. And those cooperatives have served rural America ever since.

Photo image of mother and son putting cookies into an oven.

Electric cooperative relevance today Today, 900 electric co-ops provide electricity to more than 19 million businesses, homes, schools and farms. They cover more than half the land in the United States. They employ 71,000 people and invest $12 billion a year in local economies, generating 5% of the nation’s Gross Domestic Product.

As co-op members became more aware of environmental priorities, co-ops focused on reducing power plant emissions. From 2009 to 2016, co-ops reduced greenhouse gas emissions by 8%, nitrogen oxide emissions by 24% and sulfur dioxide emissions by 66%. Co-ops also launched energy efficiency programs, many offering home and business “energy checkups” to make sure members got the best value for their energy dollar.

Electric co-ops are helping power the growth in alternative energy. They pioneered the development of community solar, which allows co-op members to participate in renewable energy without the expense and effort of installing solar panels on their own property. Co-op solar capacity has more than quadrupled in the past five years. Seventeen percent of co-op electricity now comes from hydroelectric power, solar, wind and other renewable sources.

Electric vehicles offer a promising technology with special hurdles for co-op territories that are outside of city centers. Some electric co-ops are educating members about electric vehicles, making them available to members to try out as well as offering incentives toward the installation of home and commercial fleet charging systems.

High-speed internet service is increasingly required for a vibrant local economy, so co-ops around the country are exploring ways their members can get connected.

And now that we’re all faced with the fallout from the effects of COVID-19, electric co-ops are again on the job as the virus changes everything from the national economy to how we say hello to our neighbors.

Electric co-ops are working with members who are financially impacted by the pandemic. They’re socially distancing line crews. They’re setting up drive-in or virtual membership meetings, and offering virtual energy audits.

Photo image of solar panels on the roof of a house.

… And into the future The world keeps changing, and electric co-ops will continue to adapt. Each co-op’s approach may differ, but they’ll do whatever it takes to adapt in ways that make the most sense for the people in their community. That’s what it means to be a local electric co-op. That’s what it means to #PowerOn.

By Paul Wesslund Paul Wesslund writes on consumer and cooperative affairs for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, the national trade association representing more than 900 local electric cooperatives. From growing suburbs to remote farming communities, electric co-ops serve as engines of economic development for 42 million Americans across 56 percent of the nation’s landscape.

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