Co-ops transformed life in rural America.
150 years ago the modern cooperative movement took root in rural Minnesota. Rural communities and farmers embraced the idea of bringing democratic principles into their community institutions and businesses. They organized for their own economic self-interest and to stand against the power and control of banks and railroads. Cooperatives became a fundamental part of Minnesota’s history and culture—some would even call us “the land of 10,000 co-ops.”
In the 1930s only 10% of Minnesota’s rural residents had electricity as compared to 90% of city dwellers. Investor-owned utility companies were reluctant to extend their service territories to rural area – seeing rural delivery as high cost and low return. This reality hindered the growth of rural economies and limited emerging opportunities for farmers. The Great Depression made matters worse. When President Franklin Roosevelt responded to the Depression with the New Deal, his administration targeted help to rural communities with strategies that included the Rural Electrification Act of 1936. This act designated funding for loans for electric distribution entities across rural America to light up the countryside. In Minnesota, farmers who were already familiar with agricultural co-ops readily formed co-ops around rural electrification.
Rural electric co-ops were founded on the radical idea that the people being served by an electric utility should be the same people governing it. This brought the revolutionary technology of electricity to rural communities and did it under democratic control. With new resources at their fingertips, farmers and rural community members worked side by side to build electric infrastructure that brought the lights and profound changes to life in rural America.
Our co-ops have lost their way.
Somewhere between the birth of rural electric co-ops and present day, Rural electric co-ops had their people-powered structure replaced by top-down corporate control. Today’s co-ops feature highly paid utility managers and entrenched board leadership that seemingly cuts member-owners out of the governing process. A lack of transparency, available information, education around the energy system, and the cooperative business model structure, have fed this demise in member-owner involvement. By the co-ops own admission in the 2015-2016 Cooperative Difference Report, a whopping 55% of member-owner across the country did not even know they were in a co-op.
Rural electric co-op managers and boards do not provide their member-owners with sufficient access to information to make the best decisions about co-op governance. In many states, including Minnesota, this has created rural electric co-ops that are essentially unregulated monopolies. People do not have a choice as to where they can get their energy, the cost of the power, or the rules governing their participation. These utilities are resistant to change and deaf to the concerns of their member-owners. Energy freedom does not exist here – Energy Democracy is the remedy.
Rather than creating economic opportunities by relying on electricity generated within local co-ops, rural electric co-ops export your dollars to buy dirty and expensive forms of remote electricity generation—specifically, coal. Despite growing member-owner support for energy efficiency, clean energy, self-sufficiency, local control, and a climate action, rural electric co-ops today are not delivering on their founding people powered principles. Today, rural electric co-ops look and act too much like profit-driven corporations. Even worse, most rural electric co-ops have been coerced into signing sixty-year contracts for dirty expensive coal. This severely limits opportunities for locally produced and locally owned power AND keeps utility rates high, trapping rural communities in a failing, extractionist, fossil fuel based economy.
Rural electric co-ops can transform rural America
The rural electric co-op of the future is an organization that returns to its founding principles (link to blog page) and truly delivers on the cooperative promise. Organizations that recenter and empower their members will deliver a transformed Rural America.
Minnesotans value our communities and local businesses. We seek out sustainable food from area farmers and craft beer from the town brewery. We also demand clean energy that is locally produced and locally owned.
Across the country, communities are ditching the corporate structure of their local utility. They are regaining control and creating an energy system that is clean, local, and democratic.
We see a future where our co-ops are responsive, transparent, and people-powered. A future where rural electric co-ops once again transform how our energy system works. A future where distributed, locally owned and locally produced wind and solar power are championed. Where co-ops prioritize energy efficiency to save members money. A future where co-ops lead in the face of climate change and help build thriving rural economies and communities.
By taking advantage of new technologies in wind and solar, energy efficiency, and energy storage
We want an energy system that works for everyone in our community, leaving no one in the dark.