Lights still out in Kentucky

A couple of weeks back (while I was in Alabama) there was a huge ice storm just to the north. This is the same situation that I mentioned at the end of yesterday’s post. They are still trying to get the lights back on in Kentucky, and some of the hardest hit areas may only be halfway through the ordeal. A power cooperative that is in the thick of it has become the hub for a massive ongoing effort. They are getting help from many other co-ops, as well as hiring contract workers from a private company, which has already got things back up and running over in Missouri.

So wait, how does that fit with my little co-op crusade? Shouldn’t a co-op be meeting its members needs faster than the mean and nasty power profiteers? Well, all things being equal, I sure hope so. But this is a pretty unequal situation, and to understand why, we should look at the reason why electric co-ops exist. In the early days of electrification, it was an urban phenomenon, because population density is a huge factor in determining profitability for utilities.

Power companies make money based on how many electric meters they have, and they spend money based on how much power line they have to maintain. For this reason, they all looked at rural America with its far flung farmhouses in various nooks and crannies, and wisely turned their backs. Then, starting in Wisconsin (where these cooperative sorts of things often start) rural people realized that they needed to get their own power. So they organized not-for-profit cooperatives and now there are nearly 1000 of these community-owned utilities across the country, providing power for 40 million people in 3/4 of the US landmass, in 47 states. Most are members of the National Rural Electric Association and Touchstone Cooperative.

There are also cooperatives for water (generally very small entities created to drill a well for a cluster of dwellings with little or no web presence) and telecommunications, (represented by the National Telecommunications Cooperative Association). Public utility districts – which are created by government – are also common and somewhat related, but less prevalent than co-ops in rural areas.

I would argue that electric co-ops changed the course of our nation’s history in a way that few movements have. Consider that without this development, rural communities would have remained in the dark for quite a bit longer than they did. Without rural electrification, the US would have had a much more difficult time developing its industrial capacity for two reasons: Electricity brought increased farm productivity, which provided more food for factories. And it created more demand for the utilities made in those factories. Whatever the Democrats and Republicans are saying about whether Roosevelt goosed the economy enough, I think that this dramatic expansion of electrification played a massive role in pulling the US out of the depression and building the industrial capacity that was later converted to military use and made it possible for it to enter and win WWII. And then there’s the whole issue of how cooperative responses were meeting peoples needs for a long while before the New Deal kicked in, and probably helped stave off a much worse social collapse than actually happened. But that’s another story.

So there you have it: Power co-ops beat the Nazis, but they are in a vulnerable situation. They generally have a huge network of poles and lines to maintain and repair after a disaster, particularly in forested areas like Kentucky. So long after the cities are back to normal, rural areas will still be in the dark. No amount of help from co-ops in other states will change that. I’m not sure what will, but I hope that people keep all this in mind the next time their lights go out.

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