Bringing Power to the People: The Unlikely Case for Utility Populism

Bringing Power to the People: The Unlikely Case for Utility Populism

Some 42 million Americans get their power from rural electric cooperatives. Reforming them could bring energy democracy to the Heartland—and fight climate change in the process.

Solar panels installed on a Pennsylvania farm, thanks to a USDA grant (U.S. Department of Agriculture / Flickr)

One glaring omission in the postmortem handwringing about the 2016 election is the fact that most poor people in America—of all races and genders—simply didn’t vote. They were prevented from doing so by a number of structural barriers—voting restrictions, second and third jobs, far-flung polling locations—as well as a lack of excitement about two parties they saw as having abandoned them.

Enter: twenty-first-century electric cooperatives, a perhaps unlikely player in the contest for power between progressives and conservatives in the heart of so-called Trump country in rural America.

If there’s one thing poor, rural communities tend to have in common, it’s where they get their power—not political power, but actual electricity. Over 900 rural electric cooperatives (RECs)—owned and operated by their members—stretch through forty-seven states, serving 42 million ratepayers and 11 percent of the country’s demand for electricity. They also serve 93 percent of the country’s “persistent poverty counties,” 85 percent of which lie in non-metropolitan areas. REC service areas encompass everything from isolated farm homes to mountain hollers to small cities, with the highest concentrations in the South, the Midwest, and the Great Plains. And they might just offer an opportunity to curb the right and the climate crisis alike.

Nominally democratic, RECs have the ability to transform a sizable chunk of America’s energy sector—one of the highest-polluting parts of our economy. Servicing ratepayers whose top agenda may not be climate change, the push to integrate renewables into RECs’ energy mix nonetheless grounds the transition away from carbon-intensive fuels in something more material: energy bills. Member-owner reformers dotting the map of red and rural America are already waging fights over their cooperatives on two fronts: for basic representation and for energy efficiency. Their work—combining a zeal for small-d democracy with one for bringing down emissions—could hold the key to making sure the transition away from fossil fuels includes some of the poorest places in the country on the ground floor. Crucially, it could also help extend our much heralded clean energy revolution beyond liberal enclaves like New York and California. If successful, reformed RECs could give progressives a much needed foothold in places the Democratic Party has long since abandoned. They might also help greens refocus fights onto pocketbook issues.

Understanding the RECs’ radical potential, however, means understanding their history. Rural electrification was intended to accomplish one goal: to serve people neglected by the private sector. At the start of the Great Depression, some 90 percent of rural homes lacked electricity. For private utilities (the only game in town at the time) extending power lines to customers spread out over tens or hundreds of miles simply wasn’t worth the cost—especially considering that the vast majority of those potential customers happened to be poor.

The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), created two years before the Rural Electric Administration (REA) in 1933, sought to correct that. Like most New Deal programs, the TVA didn’t emerge from the goodness of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s heart. Senator George William Norris, a progressive from Nebraska and longtime ally of organized labor, fought for the TVA against conservative Republicans who detested the idea of public power. In a reflection of its insurgent origins, the TVA was an exercise in what its originators referred to as “administration at the grassroots,” with administrators working closely with farmers and other locals to help craft plans for both power lines and economic development. “TVA’s job,” one administrator for the program told the documentarian George C. Stoney in 1940, “is to save the land and the water not alone for the people who happen to live in the Valley at the present time, but for people in cities, people in other parts of the country, people not yet born, all of whose lives will be affected eventually.”

The TVA and REA made powerful enemies along the way to electrification. Cagey about the idea of public power provision, private utilities—made aware of a previously untapped base of customers—preemptively erected “spite lines,” intended to scoop up ratepayers from under the government’s nose. “Like other private post companies that ‘couldn’t see the rural market,’” wrote John Carmody in 1938, then head of the REA, “before REA got started they suddenly blossomed out either to discourage formation of rural cooperatives or to hinder progress.” The administration eventually bought up the spite lines, rendering Georgia “one of the most widely electrified states” in the nation.

Unfortunately, the government plan left a lot of people out. This included the poorest farmers who could not afford even $1.25 a month for electric lights. And some 15,000 families were displaced outright when the TVA flooded tight-knit river communities—including some native tribes—to make way for its hydropower dams along the Tennessee Valley and its tributaries. What’s more, black households enjoyed relatively few gains from rural electrification compared to their white counterparts. Landlords who rented to African Americans often chose not to pass power bill savings down to their tenants.

The troubled roots of the coops extend into the present. Since their formation, many RECs have either embraced or fallen prey to old boys networks of board members—older white men, by and large—who have let any democratic process that did exist erode over time. In places like the Black Belt, where the civil rights movement swept majority black local governments into power, RECs continue to lag behind, often featuring little to no minority representation on their boards and staff. Among the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association’s (NRECA) forty-seven-member board of directors, all but two are white.

“What we’re dealing with here is that racism is still alive in America. These RECs were started in the 1930s and ’40s. In Alabama at that time, there was no justice, no equal rights,” John Zippert told me by phone from Epes, Alabama. With the Federation of Southern Cooperatives Land Assistance Fund (FSC)—a group supporting black cooperative development in the rural South, founded in 1967—Zippert, a civil rights movement veteran himself, has been working with member-owners of the Black Warrior Electric Membership Corporation to make it more democratic. While Zippert estimates that as much as 60 percent of Black Warrior’s 26,000-plus membership is black, “up to this point,” he says, “they have not had a black board member.”

Looking to change this, the Federation brought around one hundred people to Black Warrior’s last annual meeting in Choctaw County last summer—only to have it immediately called to a close. “They had sixty seats put out for 1,300 people,” he said, referencing the coop’s stated quorum requirement. “They insisted that this wasn’t a real meeting, and they didn’t have a quorum. Some people asked questions about the election procedure. They didn’t answer and didn’t want to answer.”

Like many coops, Black Warrior requires that 5 percent of its members be present at its meetings in order to hold them. Since its member-owners are spread out over eleven counties in rural West Alabama, there hasn’t been a proper meeting—by Zippert’s estimation—in fifty years. To correct this, FSC has worked with Black Warrior members in Sumter and Greene counties to file a lawsuit against the company, alleging that the REC’s lack of democratic process defies state and federal regulations that define what constitutes a cooperative.

Not all cooperatives are as regressive as Black Warrior. Thanks to nearly fifty years of dedicated activism on the part of member-owners, Roanoke Electric Cooperative is now one of the only RECs in the country with a majority black board and staff. Its CEO, Curtis Wynn, serves as the vice president of the NRECA, and hopes his coop can set an example for others.

Its programs extend well beyond electricity. Black landownership in the coop’s North Carolina service area has dipped from 15 million to just 2 million acres in the last several years, and the coop has developed programs to remedy that. In keeping with the REA’s founding mandate for grassroots economic development, Roanoke has sponsored a Sustainable Forestry and African American Land Retention Program, assisting 117 landowners with everything from financial support to timber management.

“Members must be at the center of every activity we do on a daily basis,” Wynn says. Accordingly, the coop holds monthly “Straight Talk” forums in each of the counties where it operates, providing updates to and hearing feedback from member-owners about what’s working and what’s not. Among the efforts to emerge from the forums have been a slew of energy efficiency programs. Because of their unique origins, RECs enjoy direct access to the USDA’s rural development funds. A recently developed program housed within the agency provides millions in federal funding for energy efficiency, allowing coops to perform upgrades to member-owners’ homes and their own equipment at no up-front cost to either ratepayers or the coop itself.

While relatively few coops have taken advantage of the program, for Roanoke it’s a clear win-win: member-owners save money on their monthly bills, while the coop saves money on overheads and creates jobs for the people in their service area.

Ouachita Electric Cooperative, in Southern Arkansas, also has a long history of member engagement and education. Like Roanoke, the coop has been taking advantage of USDA grants to incorporate services like broadband and energy efficiency, all at no up-front cost to member-owners, whose average annual income is around $33,000 per year. The coop recently partnered with a local company, Aerojet Rocketdyne, to open Arkansas’s largest solar farm.

Where economic hardship has tended to fuel more conservative tendencies among coop leadership, member-owners behind reform efforts like those at Ouachita see their coops as presenting one of relatively few opportunities for improvement in regions abandoned by corporations. Researcher and organizer Grant Williams points out that Ouachita’s service area has seen several thousands of jobs leave over the last year, from a paper factory to a diaper mill that moved to Mexico. As Ouachita member Geraldine Pace told him, “We need to offer our [members] something to give them hope . . . they think it’s just gonna get worse and worse and worse.” Integrating additional programs into the range of services the coop offers also means more jobs, in everything from construction to information technology.

Still, Ouachita and Roanoke’s initiatives around renewables and energy efficiency stand at odds with the leadership of several other electric cooperatives. Compared to municipal and investor-owned utilities, the overwhelming majority of coops are inordinately dependent on coal, deriving some 70 percent of their electricity from coal-fired power plants. That’s what led the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, or NRECA, to file a complaint with the U.S. government over the Clean Power Plan and stand behind Trump in March when he signed its death warrant.

The tension over coal is especially acute in Kentucky, home to the Mountain Association for Community Economic Development (MACED). Started in 1976, MACED has worked to build economic alternatives to coal in central Appalachia. Recently, much of that work has involved RECs. For the last several years, MACED has partnered with a network of six distribution cooperatives on a program called How$mart Kentucky. Through contracts between MACED and the RECs, the cooperative makes it known to its member-owners that they can save money on their monthly bills with a set of upgrades, things like weatherization and patching up places where air and heat might leak out.

Once ratepayers reach out to their cooperative, the REC will contact MACED to send an auditor out. That person talks with member-owners, performs tests on the home, and tells them how much they can save and how much the work will cost. Pending approval from the member-owner, MACED, which also serves as a community development financial institution (CDFI), then extends a line of credit to the cooperative to make the upgrades possible, using funds from the Department of Agriculture to bring in local contractors to carry out the improvements.

Chris Woolery, whose family hails from Eastern Kentucky, started working as an auditor with the How$mart program after he lost his home and contracting business during the fallout from the financial crisis. He now coordinates the program as a MACED staff member. “This program allowed me to transfer some of my skill-set into a job that I love, that has meaning, helps people, and helps the region,” he told me.

“Bad housing stock is a resource,” Woolery says, noting that How$mart upgrades could create hundreds and potentially thousands of jobs for Kentuckians over the next several years. One partner, the Jackson Energy Cooperative, has 51,000 members. Retrofits on all of the homes and businesses it services could take up to fifty years, Woolery estimates, by which point several thousand of the already serviced homes would need to be upgraded again.

As promising an engine of job creation as energy efficiency might be, MACED sees it as just one part of a potential transformation of the region, involving investments in everything from local food to healthcare to tourist attractions. On the renewables front, Woolery thinks of energy efficiency as a “gateway drug to clean energy.” Indeed, members of their partner coops, he noted, have been asking about solar, largely out of interest for the savings it could offer them on their monthly bills. In response, that REC, the East Kentucky Power Cooperative, brought a sixty-acre, 32,300-panel solar farm online last year.

Exciting as it is, the recent upsurge in member activism at RECs is on a collision course with the Trump administration’s proposed budget cuts. The White House’s initial budget proposal set out to slash 21 percent from the Agriculture Department, which funds most electric coops. While the department has been spared until September, its future in the impending round of budget negotiations—expected to start in June—remains uncertain. In any case, energy efficiency programs stand to be among the worst hit, given the deep cuts the White House outlined for similar departments at the Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Energy. Beyond funding cuts is the issue of who Trump and his underlings will tap for key appointments, and what their priorities are likely to be as the administration attempts to fill hundreds of still-empty agency roles this summer. “If we go to the USDA rural electric cooperative administrators now, they’re likely to say we don’t care if there aren’t black people on the board,” Zippert says.

Despite their myriad flaws and challenges coming down from the federal level, RECs may present a rare bright spot for scaling up clean and affordable energy in Trump’s America. Considering the urgency of a massive transition to renewable energy, part of what’s so instructive about the REA model is its emphasis on democratic planning as a means to get things done at scale: having established a broad set of criteria for which communities were eligible to apply for REA loans, administrators let communities do the work of deciding whether they wanted power lines and then organizing to have them built. As REA director Morris L. Cooke explained in 1938, New Deal–era advisors at the federal level would offer guidance “as to organization, methods of accounting, home demonstration projects [and] engineering practices.” But nearly just as central to the actual provision of power were the added benefits of well-organized communities.

“The immediate and tangible results will be to bring electricity to a large proportion of American farms, to stimulate employment and manufacturing, and to raise living standards in rural communities,” Cooke wrote. “The intangible values—building self-reliance and training leaders in every community—should prove no less satisfying.”

By contrast, there is currently no comprehensive federal plan to shift the country away from fossil fuels and fill in the serious gaps currently being left by privately held clean energy companies. Such a plan would require a massive expansion and revamp of the grid, converting services like heat and air conditioning to run entirely on electricity. It would also mean making it easier for ratepayers to sell their excess power back to utilities that—for the most part—are currently only set up to distribute power, not collect it.

It’s hard to imagine days more bleak than the ones that followed in the Depression’s wake, and that eventually gave rise to the REA. In the aftermath of Trump’s election, too, has come a silver lining. Alongside a surge of the xenophobic right on both sides of the Atlantic has sprouted a renewed interest in left politics, with increasingly broad swaths of the public clamoring to claim the mantle of “the Resistance.”

More prevalent than any specific ideology is a persistent anger at the establishment on both sides of the aisle. If the two sides can agree on anything, it’s that business as usual hasn’t been working out—especially not in rural America. Taking power back from a Trumpian right isn’t about wooing some mythologized white working-class voter in so-called flyover country, but about telling a better story of who came out on top in the last forty years’ nosedive into neoliberalism. In such a context, rural electric cooperatives—entrenched, staid bureaucracies—might be as useful as a shared foe for would-be reformers as they are as vehicles for envisioning low-carbon, revivified rural democracy, uniting ire at the institutions screwing us over with a demand for the America we need.

Kate Aronoff is co-host of Dissent’s Hot & Bothered podcast on the politics of climate change.