What’s the benefit of public power in our current era?
By Louis Porter
Most members of Washington Electric Cooperative know why and how electric cooperatives in general, and WEC in particular, came into being. They know the history of rural territories, whose lack of population density and rugged landscapes made electrification difficult, expensive, unprofitable, and therefore unappealing to investor-owned utilities.
But does that history still provide a compelling reason for electrical cooperatives to exist? Why do electrical cooperatives and municipal electric utilities continue to not only exist, but are even expanding in some areas?
Many of the historic reasons for the existence of co-ops remain true, as many of the areas served by them continue to be rural and less well-off areas with a higher portion of residential customers.
But there are other reasons as well.
For one thing, without shareholders to pay back for their investments, co-ops return money they collect in excess of what is needed to obtain and deliver electricity to their member-ratepayers. WEC, for example, has returned more than $9 million to its member owners since 1998 in capital credit refunds.
Co-ops can also work with their members to do other things with that money – if the members choose. About 1,400 members donate their refunds to the WEC Community Fund, which in turn has provided about half a million dollars to local organizations, from food pantries to senior centers, in the part of Vermont we serve.
The money from cooperative utilities stays local, and so does the control of the organization. WEC, like most electrical cooperatives, is governed by a board made up of members. If WEC is not serving our members’ interests, our Board can change that direction. If members don’t feel that the Board’s decisions reflect their wishes, they can run to be on the Board themselves. It is a local and a democratic system.
That extends to those who work at WEC as well. Recently, a member of a local emergency services provider was surprised that I was one point of contact in cases of emergencies. I explained that at a small place like WEC, where most of the 40 employees are out in the field during an outage, those, like the General Manager, who tend to work in the office become a clearinghouse for information.
It is a local and a democratic system. That extends to those who work at WEC as well. Recently, a member of a local emergency services provider was surprised that I was one point of contact in cases of emergencies.– Louis Porter
Finally, a co-op like WEC can make choices about how it operates and spends its members’ money – or doesn’t – based on factors besides what is cheapest or brings in the most revenue. WEC became a 100% renewable utility before regulations required it not because it was the cheapest or easiest path, but because the leaders of the organization believed it was both responsible and how the membership wanted their money spent. The investment in the Coventry landfill gas-to-electricity project, the decision to no longer take nuclear power, and opting to not use herbicides on WEC rights-of-way were all financially defensible, but like any such decisions, they also brought risks.
To a very large extent, what I hear from members is that they supported and continue to support those decisions.