The Rise of the New Power Co-Op Movement
Brendan Smith, Oysterman and Labor Network for Sustainability Co-Founder
The Huffington Post
September 29, 2010
[Drafted with Jeremy Brecher]
Breakdown at Copenhagen. Climate legislation stalled.
EPA regulation of greenhouse gasses threatened. Is
climate protection dead?
Maybe not. Climate protection has gone local. Political
leaders may fiddle while the world burns, but
grassroots groups around the country are organizing to
cut greenhouse gas emissions and build a greener future
for their communities. Block by block and using every
tool at their disposal, groups are fighting to green
schools and workplaces; setting up networks of green
job training centers; installing solar water heaters in
low income communities; and halting new coal-fired
power plants with both political and direct action.
One of the least known but most promising examples of
this "localization" of climate politics is the greening
of utility co-ops to create affordable and renewable
energy, green jobs, and regional green development.
These efforts may well represent the beginning of a
"New Power Co-Op Movement" that can help jump start the
shift to a new green economy.
Electric co-ops are owned by their customers, who are
called "members" due to their dual role as
customer/owner. Their primary mission is to provide
access to electricity at affordable prices for every
potential member in their service area.
Electric co-ops were created as one of President
Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal programs in order to
promote rural development. The first electric co-op was
born in 1934 in the back of a furniture store in
Corinth, Mississippi. Within a few years, it had
thousands of counterparts across the nation.
Today, America's 930 electric cooperatives are the sole
source of electricity for 42 million people in 47
states -- nearly 12 percent of the nation's population.
They control $100 billion in assets and $31 billion in
What Matters in Kansas
In western Kansas, rural communities, farms, and
businesses get their electricity from Midwest Energy,
the electric co-op based in Hays, Kansas. The co-op has
pioneered an energy conservation strategy known as "on-
bill financing." It has developed a program called
How$mart that provides money for energy efficiency
improvements such as insulation, air sealing, and new
heating and cooling systems for residential and small
business consumers. Co-op members -- whether owners or
tenants -- don't have to put up any money "up-front."
Instead, they repay the funds through energy savings on
their monthly power bills.
Members start with an energy audit to determine
potential savings. The co-op develops an individualized
conservation plan. Members choose a contractor. If the
member moves or sells the property, the deal passes to
the next customer at that location.
The program started with a pilot in four rural counties
in the summer of 2008; it then spread through rural
Western Kansas. A year later it had invested $1 million
in more than two hundred rural homes and businesses. It
is estimated that customers will save over 400,000
kilowatt-hours per year, enough to power forty homes.
That will put 13,000 fewer tons of carbon dioxide into
the environment over the next twenty years. The
Environmental Defense Fund recently recognized How$mart
as one of America's best energy innovations.
"New Power" in Kentucky
For decades residents of eastern Kentucky have been
fighting Big Coal's destruction of their majestic
environment and cherished way of life by coal
extraction. Much of that fight is led by the statewide
citizens organization Kentuckians For The Commonwealth.
KFTC has deep roots in the state's impoverished
mountain communities where coal is mined; many of its
leaders are former coal miners. While it has engaged in
direct action against mountaintop removal, it
recognizes that such action is not enough. Kentuckians
desperately need a new strategy for economic
development, energy, and jobs. KFTC is now promoting a
plan for "New Power" that would make eastern Kentucky's
electric cooperatives the pivot for such a strategy.
East Kentucky Power Cooperative (EKPC) is a cooperative
that is owned by 16 local electric distribution coops.
EKPC generates and sells power to these co-ops, which
serve half a million members in 87 counties. EKPC is
proposing to build a new 278-megawatt coal-burning
power plant in central Kentucky along the Kentucky
River at an estimated cost of nearly one billion
The Smith plant would only increase the dependence of
Kentucky on coal for its energy supply and thereby
increase the pressures for mountaintop removal. The
struggle against the Smith plant has led KFTC to
accompany its fight to save the mountains with a search
for a "New Power" alternative.
With the help of KFTC, co-op members are now proposing
that the co-ops not waste their funds on the Smith coal
plant, but instead invest in an alternative plan to
meet the power needs of their members through energy-
saving and renewable energy programs. These local
energy needs will be met by a combination of energy
efficiency and weatherization initiatives paid through
on-bill financing, along with local renewable energy,
such as small-scale hydroelectric plants and rooftop
solar hot water heaters. The New Power plan would cost
less than the Smith Plant while meeting the same energy
Such a plan would not only provide for eastern
Kentucky's energy needs in a way that would protect the
local environment and the global climate, it would also
provide far more and better jobs. According to EKPC
itself, the Smith plant will create only 700 temporary
jobs at the peak of construction and 60 permanent jobs.
Yet, according to the Ochs Center for Metropolitan
Studies,an energy plan based on efficiency and
renewables will create nearly 4,600 direct jobs over
the same period it would take to build the Smith Plant.
Members of local communities could be trained and hired
for these green energy jobs.
The New Power plan would also significantly lower the
utility bills of co-op members (some co-op members in
eastern Kentucky spend more than 50% of income on
energy). The estimated cost of electricity from the
alternative plan is 17% less than the Smith coal-
burning plant. Money saved could be invested in
affordable housing, environmental restoration,
healthcare, and other job-creating activities. (For
more on KFTC's alternative program read: "A Cooperative
Approach to Renewing East Kentucky".)
Co-op members in Kentucky are weighing the trade-off.
According to Rachel Harrod, whose stepmother ran for a
local co-op board this summer:
I believe there's an alternative that will be
better for the environment, less costly to co-op
members, and far more beneficial economically. The
jobs generated by a clean energy portfolio would be
a welcome boost to our local economy. I can't tell
you how significant this would be to an area that
has lost much of its agricultural base in recent
In addition to saving co-op members from paying for
dirty power, a New Power program in eastern Kentucky
could kick-start a broader agenda for transitioning
Appalachia to the new green economy. Co-ops already
have the key infrastructure in place. And instead of
being controlled by for-profit investor utilities, the
new facilities will literally be owned by eastern
Kentucky -- the co-op owners, not distant stakeholders.
These economic benefits will stay in Kentucky and
reverberate through the region.
Greening Economic Democracy
Rural electric co-ops were once a model for economic
democracy. David Lilienthal, a founding director of the
Tennessee Valley Authority, described an electric coop
annual meeting in the 1940s:
Throughout a whole day as many as 2,000 farmers and
their wives and children discussed the financial
and operating reports made to them by their [co-op]
superintendent and board of trustees, and later
while we ate a barbecue lunch watched new uses of
These membership "town meetings" are not simply
business sessions. They have an emotional overtone,
a spiritual meaning to people who were so long
denied the benefits of modern energy.
But many electric coops have become distant from such
town meeting democracy. In eastern Kentucky, for
example, elections to coop boards are rarely contested,
with many of the officers serving for decades. Policies
are often controlled by coal and other energy
companies; as a result, Kentucky's rural electrical
cooperatives are more than 90 percent dependent on
coal. That makes rural Kentuckians vulnerable to rising
fuel prices and coal depletion.
Building the new green economy will require the revival
of democracy -- at every level. That's why co-op
members, with the help of KFTC, have begun challenging
the entrenched leadership of local co-op boards. This
year, KFTC members Dallas Ratliff and Tona Barkley ran
for the board of the Owen Electrical Cooperative. In
her campaign materials Barkley says:
As a board member, I will strive to make the co-op
more open and democratic. I'll also promote a
stronger approach to helping members improve the
energy efficiency of their homes and businesses and
a more aggressive approach to transitioning into
more renewable sources of energy -- to protect
members from rising energy costs, to protect our
health, and to create local jobs.
Like Tona, hundreds of KFTC members throughout the
state see a clear link between new democratic power and
new clean energy power.
Such a program could be a model for the 400 rural
electrical co-ops with 40 million members nationwide.
And that could be a significant contribution to a new
strategy for protecting the global climate -- from
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