Watch: Rural Electric Cooperatives and the Unlikely Case for Utility Populism

Watch: Rural Electric Cooperatives and the Unlikely Case for Utility Populism

Dissent contributor Kate Aronoff speaks to C-SPAN about rural electric cooperatives and their potential to seed a grassroots green populism.

Dissent contributor Kate Aronoff speaks to C-SPAN about rural electric cooperatives and their potential to help seed a grassroots green populism. Read Kate’s article on RECs in our Summer 2017 issue.

Rush transcript via C-SPAN, lightly edited for clarity:

Host Kimberly Atkins: Joining us is Kate Aronoff from Dissent magazine to discuss her piece on rural electrical cooperatives. Thank you for joining us today. Explain for viewers who do not know—what is Dissent magazine?

Kate Aronoff: It is a magazine founded in the 1950s to have a conversation about the left and socialism that was not aligned with the Soviet Union. Since that time, it has been a forum for debate and ideas on the left that tries to talk about democracy, socialism, and the way those things can work together in a way they haven’t always in “actually existing socialism,” but we think is possible.

Kimberly Atkins: Why the major focus on the rural electric cooperatives?

Kate Aronoff: I write a decent amount about energy and environment issues. I came across rural electric cooperatives a couple of years ago. After the election, there was a lot of handwringing about how the country could elect Trump. Who voted for Donald Trump? There are discussions to be had, but it ignores the fact a lot of people did not vote for a number of reasons. A lot of them had to do with access to voting rights and voter suppression, but also because a lot of people feel the major parties have abandoned them. Rural electric cooperatives are a not-quite-political institution that has political implications as a form of utility that serves 85 percent of persistent-poverty counties. I started looking at rural electric cooperatives for their role in our energy system but also the role they play in rural communities—what sort of opportunities they present for connecting rural communities, making inroads for renewable energy, and moving toward lower-carbon energy systems—but also [as] a political question of how people are getting their power and what institutions are connecting these communities.

Kimberly Atkins: Explain for viewers who are not familiar with these RECs exactly what they are and how they work.

Kate Aronoff: Rural electric cooperatives were formed by the rural electrification program started in 1935. Like a lot of New Deal programs, it was a result of massive pressure from below on more progressive people in the government at the time. The idea was to extend electric power to the 90 percent of rural communities that did not have power in the wake of the Great Depression. As much as it was about that, it was also about serving as an engine for economic development for some places hardest hit by the Depression. As they were providing power, they were also providing things like job creation and agricultural assistance. It is not just power. But that was a big part of it.

The other thing I will say briefly about rural electric cooperatives is like a lot of other New Deal programs, it was top down in the sense that was a lot of money coming from the federal government to make this possible, but it was created with an eye towards self-sufficiency. People could come together and decide as a community they wanted to bring electric power to their towns, small cities. And they would do it. [Their REC] would be able to sustain itself with affordable rates from members.

Kimberly Atkins: Talk a little bit about the political history behind these cooperatives.

Kate Aronoff: Sure. Part of how they came to be was from grassroots experimentation by those living in rural communities not being served by the private sector. That was a main driver behind this program and a lot of other New Deal programs—to fill gaps private electricity companies were not meeting. That is the grassroots basis. Since that time, since the Depression, a lot of them have become subject to old-boys networks. And in many cases, while nominally and legally democratic, [RECs] are actually very undemocratic in the way they are operated. This is most prominent in the Black Belt of the United States—where you will have a predominantly black service area, in a place where there may even be a predominantly black government, but because the coop board governing board is appointed often with lifelong terms where they can collect benefits, you will have predominantly white boards. I think there are only three members of color of the national rural electric cooperative association. In has historically been a regressive force. [But] there is tremendous possibility in terms of the role they can play in transitioning to renewables, taking back public power, and serving as a model for how that can happen. There are political fights to be waged on how they are run now.

Kimberly Atkins: We have a call on our independents line.

Caller: Good morning. I was calling about the broadband. I understand some RECs are against broadband. I was wondering if charter or other cable systems were fighting to keep broadband from being offered. I know in this area, we could use broadband to cut down on the cost of watching quality TV programming like C-SPAN. Thank you.

Kate Aronoff: That is a great question. That has been one of the more exciting programs developing in RECs based on owner/member activism: to bring broadband where it does not come, for the same reason RECs or started in the first place, to fill a gap in the private market. RECs are naturally positioned to be a huge provider of broadband. I know in New York, some of the rural electric cooperatives are interested in integrating broadband into their service. It goes back to the original mission of rural electric cooperatives, which is to be this broad-based engine of economic development. Broadband in the twenty-first century is a huge part of that.

Kimberly Atkins: I want to talk a little bit about how this relates to renewable energy. You write that initiatives around renewables stand at odds with several of these RECs. Talk about the interplay between these RECs and the effort to shift toward renewable energy.

Kate Aronoff: As you mentioned in the excerpt, RECs are inordinately dependent on coal. Part of it is structural: RECs have long-term contracts with coal-power generators. That makes it an uphill battle to get renewables there. And in some places where rural electric cooperatives serve, there is a historical role where coal has provided jobs and been the force of gravity. For the story, I talked to someone who works for a group in Kentucky. Kentucky has an economy that has historically been very dependent on coal. He told me they are starting this program with a number of rural electric cooperatives throughout the state to offer energy efficiency programs. How he explained it to me was that these energy efficiency programs were not about renewable energy yet, but things like insulation, bringing down electricity costs—he said that was a gateway drug to renewable energy. I think that is an approach that can be really effective in some other places—thinking about how to get to renewable energy not out of some moral or ethical commitment to solar panels, but because it is cheaper and can bring down costs, be more reliable, be a better source of power and a real job creator for some places. There is a lot of work to be done in the transition away from fossil fuels. I think particularly in places where the coal industry has fled and left people out of work, looking at the transition can be good.

Kimberly Atkins: Jeremy is calling from Chestertown, Maryland, on our Democratic line. You’re on with Kate Aronoff.

Caller: I wanted to thank you for bringing the perspective to support socialism I never thought about before. . . [breaks off]

Kimberly Atkins: Jeremy, are you there? Kate, talk about that sentiment a little bit.

Kate Aronoff: It is funny, the history of the rural electric cooperatives and a lot of the New Deal programs were accused of creeping socialism and had to fight off accusations of being communist-run, being these agents of the Soviet government or something like that. It is a common form of socialism you find in many places we do not normally associate in the United States with socialism. One thing I found researching this piece was a play that have been written through another New Deal program that takes place in this rural community. People are arguing for electrification as an egalitarian, socialist demand. They do not say it outright, but that is something definitely in the water. You don’t need to be a socialist to support some of the efforts happening in rural electric cooperatives or renewable energy as a place where socialist ideas can play out. Rural electric cooperatives are an exciting place because they are owned and operated by their members and have this membership structure which is democratic and socialist, which are two things I think are good to look at in the twenty-first century.

Kimberly Atkins: Charles is on the independents line from Millville, New Jersey. Go ahead.

Caller: I would like to know what these coops—if these coops are doing anything about providing solar panels to people. When solar energy started out, these panels were offered for sale. You could buy them yourself. The companies would pay a percentage of whatever you brought in your house and did not use, they would pay you back rates for that and that would provide you with pretty much free electric. Now the panels are so overpriced a normal person cannot afford to buy them. What are you doing for people who cannot afford to buy the panels?

Kate Aronoff: It’s great to hear from someone from Millville—I’m from Millville. Thank you for bringing up the issue of affordability. That is part of what makes rural electric cooperatives so exciting. It can be very hard to access solar power for a lot of people, specifically if the laws in your state are not in a position to do it. There have been huge fights waged by private utilities to make it much harder for people to afford solar panels and for solar panels to come online. [In some] rural electric cooperatives, there have been programs with financing to allow you to pay it out of your electric bill at no cost as you mentioned. There’s also increasing interest in utility-scale solar power. Even if you cannot put a solar panel on your house, your electric utility can create a solar farm and you can get power from that.

That is one of the biggest issues we have to grapple with if we are looking at a future powered less by coal, oil, and natural gas: how we make renewable energy something the everyday person can tap into. Rural electric cooperatives right now are controlled by coal-industry interests, but are also exciting examples of how those programs can proliferate.

Kimberly Atkins: In the piece, you write that the recent upsurge in member activism is on a collision course with the Trump administration’s proposed cuts. It set out to cut 21 percent from the agriculture department. What should we expect from this?

Kate Aronoff: I have not had a chance to look at the most recent Senate budget blueprint and what it means for electric coops. When I was speaking to folks for the piece, that was the elephant in the room. Right now, there are fairly generous funds set up to help rural electric cooperatives make energy efficiency adjustments. In Kentucky, they have these agriculture funds. That is under threat. Like a lot of things with the Trump administration, what comes to fruition remains to be seen, and if this is something under the radar, hopefully it gets a pass and there are people that can push to make it even greater. But however we look at this, the transition is going to take a lot of money and there’s no way around that. That expenditure is going to be less expensive than dealing with the effects of catastrophic climate change, which is what we are up against in the coming decades. It remains to be seen what we are up against.