By Justin LaBerge
Like shelter, food and clothing, electricity has become a staple of our lives. When the price of energy goes up, you have less money to spend on other things. For some families, that might mean a shorter vacation or one less meal at a restaurant. But for many families, increases in energy costs mean hard choices, such as whether to pay the light bill or the grocery bill.
A detailed explanation of all the ways cooperatives work to keep energy affordable could fill every page of this magazine, but here are a few you should know about.
The most powerful weapon in your cooperative’s fight to keep energy affordable is the not-for-profit business model. Unlike investor-owned utilities, electric cooperatives aren’t in business to make profits for shareholders.
Electric cooperatives exist to provide safe, reliable and affordable energy to members in the communities they serve. Any surplus revenue is reinvested in the cooperative, used to pay down debt or returned to members over time through capital credits.
Energy policy advocacy
Regulation is a necessary and important part of a modern world, but well-intentioned regulations often have costly and unintended consequences.
Your electric cooperative is a member of the Association of Illinois Electric Cooperatives and the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, which act as a voice for you and your fellow co-op members in Illinois and Washington, D.C.
These associations work hard every day to ensure lawmakers and regulators understand the impact changes they propose could have on the cost and reliability of your electric service.
In addition to their efforts, there are two member-driven programs that give electric cooperative members a powerful voice in the democratic process.
The first is the Action Committee for Rural Electrification®, or ACRE®. Founded in 1966, ACRE is the federal political action committee (PAC) of America’s electric cooperatives. ACRE supports candidates for the U.S. House and Senate who will speak for and protect the interests of electric cooperatives and their consumer-owners.
ACRE contributions to candidates are backed by more than 31,000 eligible employees, directors and consumer-members across 47 states with an average contribution of $56, making it truly a grassroots PAC.
The second is the Cooperative Action Network – the advocacy hub for America’s electric cooperatives. This program is free to join and allows co-op members to band together and promote common sense solutions to the problems facing our nation.
The Cooperative Action Network boasts a grassroots army of more than one million advocates across the country. When you join the Cooperative Action Network, you can sign up to receive alerts related to proposed state and federal regulations that could impact you and the price you pay for electricity. Each alert includes an explanation of the issue, its potential impact and information on how you can make your voice heard. To learn more about this program, visit action.coop.
Technology and innovation
The energy industry is in the midst of a period of significant change, and many of these advances have the potential to improve the affordability, reliability and efficiency of our nation’s electric system. Your local electric cooperative is actively involved in the development of new technologies and monitoring the advances of other researchers through its national association.
It might surprise you to know that America’s electric cooperatives are often leaders in the implementation of new energy technologies. The low-density rural areas served by electric co-ops often stand to gain the most from advances in automation and efficiency.
Technologies such as automated meter reading and remote system control allow electric cooperatives to save money while improving service.
In rural areas where people and infrastructure are more spread out, crews often travel great distances to reach trouble spots and make repairs. In addition to travel time, this results in higher costs for fuel and labor.
Through smart grid technology, many routine system issues can be addressed remotely. When a crew must be dispatched to make repairs, smart grid technology can help diagnose the problem remotely so the co-op can send the right personnel, equipment and parts to make the repair quickly.
Electric cooperatives are also leaders in the development of renewable energy projects. In fact, three of the top four solar utilities in America are electric cooperatives.
As energy technology continues to advance, you can be confident that your local electric cooperative will be keeping a close eye on these changes and seeking ways to improve the affordability and reliability of your service.
Conservation and efficiency
Finally, it’s important to remember that the cheapest kilowatt is the one you never use. Though there are many factors that impact the price of electricity that are beyond your control, you do have control over the energy choices you make in your home or business. Check with your local electric cooperative to find out what programs and services they offer to help you improve your efficiency and better understand how the choices you make every day impact your energy consumption.
As you can see, there’s no shortcut to keeping energy affordable. It takes a lot of people working hard on many different fronts to fight the affordability battle. Though it might not be simple, you can be confident your local electric cooperative is looking out for you.
Justin LaBerge writes on consumer and cooperative affairs for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, the Arlington, Va.-based service arm of the nation’s 900-plus consumer-owned, not-for-profit electric cooperatives.