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Electricity Continues to Power Colorado’s Communities

By Kent Singer, Executive Director

Back in 1985, the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association published a book titled The Next Greatest Thing to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the creation of the electric co-op program. The phrase “the next greatest thing” came from an oft-quoted passage from a sermon given in a Tennessee church in the early 1940s:

“Brothers and sisters, I want to tell you this. The greatest thing on earth is to have the love of God in your heart, and the next greatest thing is to have electricity in your house.”

The book published by NRECA told the story of the rural electrification program and the dramatic improvement in the quality of life that this program brought to rural America. It featured numerous pictures and narratives about life in rural America before electric power was available, stories that are difficult to comprehend for most Americans today.

Have you ever considered how clothes were washed and ironed before electricity powered washing machines and irons? It’s hard to imagine, but in rural America, women (and this backbreaking work was done mostly by women) would pump water from a well or cistern into large buckets, haul the buckets back to the house, heat water in a basin over a wood stove, scrub clothes with lye soap over a washboard, rinse the clothes in another basin, wring them out, dry them on a clothesline and then heat a 6-pound iron over the same wood stove to iron the clothes.

Hauling water, chopping firewood, preserving fruits and vegetables, milking cows by hand, reading by the dim light of a kerosene lamp: This was the life of millions of farm families before the rural electrification program finally brought electricity to the countryside. So when electricity came to rural America, it changed people’s lives, freeing them from the drudgery of many day-to-day tasks and enabling them to lead more productive, enjoyable and healthier lives. Of the many New Deal programs initiated by President Franklin Roosevelt, the rural electrification program was undoubtedly the most successful in improving and transforming the lives of millions of Americans.

But while Colorado’s electric co-ops are proud of our past, we understand that we live in a world that asks, “What have you done for me lately?” In other words, it’s not good enough that we have electrified rural Colorado over the last 80 years. Today, we also have to understand that co-op consumer-members expect more options, more communication and more innovation from their electricity provider.

Whether that means advanced metering infrastructure, rooftop solar or robust energy efficiency programs, the consumer-members of Colorado’s electric co-ops expect today’s co-ops to think differently about how they provide power. Co-op consumer-members have more choices in their daily lives, and they expect their electric co-op to provide choices, too.

This is nothing new for Colorado’s electric co-ops. We were the first electric utilities in Colorado to deploy automated meters to enable two-way communication between the co-op and the consumer-member, improving reliability and advancing distributed generation. We were the first electric utilities in Colorado to establish community solar gardens to benefit low-income residents. We were also the first to create “roundup” programs where consumer-members can round up their bill to the next dollar and use the money to help their neighbors.

We’ve done all these things because that’s the cooperative way. We exist not to make a profit, but to power communities and empower the lives of our consumer-members. To that end, Colorado’s electric co-ops will always seek to find “the next greatest thing.

Serving Our Communities: The Co-op Difference

By Kent Singer, CREA Executive Director

Colorado Country Life, the magazine for the Colorado Rural Electric Association, is delivered each month to over 229,000 households and businesses in Colorado electric cooperative service territory. If you receive the magazine, you’re probably a member-consumer of one of Colorado’s 22 electric distribution co-ops that serve 70 percent of the geography of Colorado.

You may not realize it, but by virtue of being a consumer-member of an electric co-op, you’re not just a customer of a utility, you’re part of a movement. That’s right, the electric co-op program was a social experiment initiated by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1935 (Congress passed enabling legislation in 1936).

FDR created the Rural Electrification Administration, commonly known as the REA, not only to provide jobs during the Great Depression, but also because he believed that the quality of life in rural America would be greatly improved if people in rural areas had access to electricity in the same way as those who lived in cities.

I was reminded of the beginnings of the REA program on a recent trip to the town of Hyde Park in upstate New York. As you may know, FDR was born in Hyde Park on an estate called Springwood; he returned there frequently over the course of his eventful life, and he and Eleanor Roosevelt are buried on the grounds of the estate. Today, you can tour the Roosevelt home at Springwood and visit the FDR Presidential Library & Museum. (For anyone interested in U.S. history, particularly World War II, the museum is a must-see.)

In addition to being a wartime president, Roosevelt had the overwhelming challenge of trying to jump-start the U.S. economy in the throes of the Great Depression. The REA program was just one of many “New Deal” programs he initiated. While the museum includes exhibits about each of these programs, I took special note of the exhibit titled “Powering Rural America.” The introduction to the exhibit reminds us of the reasons FDR started the REA program:

“Imagine a world without electricity. In 1933, 90 percent of America’s farmers lived in such a world. Ignored by private power companies, who could not make a profit wiring rural areas, farm families passed their nights in darkened homes. Their days were filled with time-consuming manual labor. Electricity could transform farm life with pumps to supply running water, refrigerators, washing machines and other labor-saving devices. A longtime advocate of public power, FDR was determined to bring affordable electricity to rural Americans.”

As the result of FDR’s vision and the hard work of co-op line crews over the last 80 years, America’s farms and small towns enjoy the benefits of electricity. Today, your co-op provides more than electricity; it’s an integral part of your community. That is part of the “co-op difference.”

Your local electric cooperative pays taxes; it employs your neighbors; it lights your kids’ ball field; it sponsors local youth programs; it offers college and trade school scholarships to local students; and so much more. Co-ops also help those who struggle to pay their power bills by supporting Energy Outreach Colorado and other organizations that help those less fortunate. No other type of electric utility has this kind of connection with its consumers.

When I visited Hyde Park this fall, I paid homage to FDR at his grave in the rose garden at the Springwood estate. With the REA, he started something big: a movement that has grown and flourished and now includes over 900 cooperatives serving more than 42 million Americans in 47 states. That’s something to be proud of, just as all of Colorado’s electric co-ops are proud to serve their members and their communities.

With your support, Colorado’s electric cooperatives will continue to live “the co-op difference” in 2019 and beyond. I wish you a happy holiday season and a healthy new year.

Turning on the Lights in Guatemalan Villages

By Kent Singer, CREA Executive Director

After three weeks of hard work by line crews from Colorado and Oklahoma, the lights came on for the first time in two remote Guatemalan villages October 2. Just as they have done in the United States, co-op linemen brought electricity and a better way of life to our neighbors in Central America.

The line crews that made up the “Energy Trails” team gave their blood, sweat and tears to build 5 miles of distribution system and install the inside wiring for more than 100 homes, two churches, two schools and two medical clinics in the villages of Pie del Cerro and Tierra Blanca Salinas. They traveled over makeshift roads and worked long hours in sweltering heat and humidity to complete the much-needed project. When it was done, one more corner of the developing world had electric lighting and power.

The Colorado Rural Electric Association joined our partners at the Oklahoma Association of Electric Cooperatives and NRECA International to send some of our best men to Guatemala to provide electricity to the two villages. Working without the bucket trucks and modern equipment available in the United States, the line crews relied on “old school” techniques using ropes and hand tools to string the lines and hang the transformers.

In celebration of this historic event, the children and families from the villages saluted the co-op linemen with a parade, a flag-raising ceremony, speeches and a special banquet to thank them for bringing power to their communities. The inauguration ceremony on October 2 was a joyous occasion, complete with drummers, dancers and incense-carrying villagers who escorted the Energy Trails team to the school grounds for an elaborate program recognizing their service. Following speeches by local dignitaries, the ceremonial first light was switched on and the party began.

The efforts of the Energy Trails team to bring electricity to these two rural Guatemala villages is in the best tradition of the electric co-op program. For over 80 years, electric co-ops in Colorado and across the country brought power to rural areas that would not otherwise have access to it. Electric co-ops have provided electricity to the most remote areas of the United States and we believe we have a responsibility to help people in other parts of the world as well. NRECA International has been doing just that since 1962, and we were proud to join our Oklahoma friends to complete this project in Guatemala.

The real heroes of this effort, of course, are the linemen from Colorado and Oklahoma who volunteered to be away from their families and friends for three weeks to help people they had never met and who they will probably never see again. Each day, the Colorado and Oklahoma crews navigated a bone-jarring dirt road from Playa Grande to the job site; just getting back and forth from the villages each day required two hours on the road. They often arrived back in Playa Grande at 9 or 10 p.m. after a sweat-soaked day in the field.

The Colorado crew consisted of Ben Ludington from Poudre Valley Electric Association in Fort Collins; Nate Towne from Mountain Parks Electric Association in Granby; Chet Stickler and Christian Baker from Holy Cross Energy in Glenwood Springs; Kelly Snow from United Power in Brighton; and Kris Barbee from Southeast Colorado Power Association in La Junta. The Colorado team leader was Dale Kishbaugh, CREA’s director of safety and loss control. These men from the Colorado co-op family deserve our gratitude for representing the Colorado electric co-op program in an exemplary way and for completing a project that will forever change the lives of many children and families in the two villages.

During this season of Thanksgiving, I am thankful for many things: my family, friends, good health and great fortune to be an American. But I am especially thankful this year to be associated with the incredible linemen of the Energy Trails team who gave their time, skills and, most importantly, their brotherhood to people in need. Many thanks for a job well done.

Clarification of U.S. Legislation

By Kent Singer, CREA Executive Director

33, 18, 1: If that sequence of numbers doesn’t strike a chord with you, don’t worry. It just means you probably have never been a state legislator, lobbyist or staffer working in the Capitol in Denver.

Because if you have ever been a legislator, lobbyist or staffer, you know that it takes 33 votes in the House of Representatives, 18 votes in the Senate and one signature of the governor for a piece of legislation to become law in the state of Colorado. (The governor, of course, can also veto legislation or let it become law without his or her signature, but in most cases the governor signs bills approved by the legislature).

Why does our system work this way? If you did not pay close attention during your high school civics class (they still teach civics, right?), you may have missed the day when your teacher explained the “Great Compromise.” If you are drawing a blank as to the significance of this important feature of the United States Constitution, read on for a refresher course.

During the summer of 1787, the founding fathers met in Philadelphia to draw up a new set of ground rules for the American republic. (Hopefully, this is ringing a bell.) The new constitution created a stronger blueprint for the nascent government and it defined the respective roles of the three branches. The U.S. Constitution creates the basic organizational structure of the government, including the “checks and balances” among the legislative, executive and judicial branches that serve as limits on the exercise of power by any one branch.

One of the hotly contested arguments among the conventioneers in 1787 was how the legislative branch would be formulated and how representatives would be selected. Not surprisingly, delegates from the large states supported the Virginia Plan, whereby representation in the new legislature would be based solely on population. Others supported the New Jersey Plan, whereby each state was entitled to one member regardless of population.

After weeks of debate, the delegates settled one of the most important debates in American history. Deemed the “Great Compromise,” or sometimes the “Connecticut Compromise” (it was brokered by Rep. Roger Sherman of Connecticut), the founding fathers devised a two-house Congress where one house (the House of Representatives) would have membership based on population and the other house (the Senate) would consist of two members from each state. As a result, the legislature would be bicameral (two houses). This compromise led to the ratification of the Constitution by both large and small states and created one of the “checks” in our system that survives to this day.

How is this relevant to Colorado? When Colorado became a state in 1876, many of the same organizational principles that were embedded in the U.S. Constitution were used as a model for our state government. As a result, Colorado also has a bicameral legislature (as does every state in the union except for Nebraska). In order for legislation to become law in Colorado, it has to be approved by a majority of the 65-member House of Representatives (33 or more members voting yes) and a majority of the 35-member Senate (18 or more members voting yes).

The bicameral structure of our legislature is an important and real check on the power of any one person or party in Colorado. Today, the Colorado Senate has a Republican majority and the Colorado House of Representatives has a Democrat majority. This means that in order for any piece of legislation to survive the legislative gauntlet and land on the governor’s desk for signature, it has to receive the approval of a bipartisan majority of legislators in both houses.

This balance of power has been good for Colorado. Despite the noise and fury in the press about how our political system is broken or in crisis, our state legislature actually found a way to work together in a bipartisan way to do the state’s business. During the 2018 session, the legislature accomplished the following:
• passed a balanced budget
• reformed the state public employee retirement system
• adopted legislation to fund highway improvements
• revamped the state’s 811 “call-before-you-dig” system
• dedicated funding to improve rural broadband access
• referred two measures to the voters to reform the way congressional and legislative districts are drawn.

Now, you may disagree about whether these “accomplishments” fit your idea of effective government, but from where I sit, this record passes the Goldilocks test: not too much government, nor too little, but just about right.

Dissimilarities and Similarities of Electric Cooperatives

By Kent Singer, CREA Executive Director

“If you’ve seen one electric co-op, you’ve seen … one electric co-op.” This is a line many of us in the electric cooperative world use to emphasize the point that every electric co-op is unique. This is particularly true in Colorado where cooperatives provide electricity to 70 percent of the state’s landmass through what may be the most diverse group of electric distribution co-ops in the country.

All 22 of the state’s electric distribution co-ops are members of the Colorado Rural Electric Association where we work to meet their various and diverse needs. Among the services CREA provides is this statewide magazine, Colorado Country Life. But that, too, is customized to meet the unique needs of each cooperative that uses the magazine to communicate with its consumer-members. In your co-op’s newsletter you’ll find specific information on upcoming meetings, director elections, rate adjustments, appliance rebates and other local news provided by your specific cooperative.

Each electric co-op is operated independently and is a separate business with its own board of directors, management and staff. Each co-op elects a board of directors comprised of members of the co-op and each board sets policies and works with management to run the co-op, in a way that best benefits the community and the consumer-members who depend on that co-op for their electricity.

Eighteen of the state’s co-ops purchase their electricity from Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association, a power supply cooperative that also serves distribution co-ops and public power districts in Nebraska, New Mexico and Wyoming. Four Colorado co-ops purchase their electricity from Xcel Energy.

The diversity of Colorado’s electric co-ops can be further measured by many different factors: size of service territory, number of members, geography, economic base, power supply, socioeconomic status, political affiliation, weather, etc. All of these factors come into play in the day-to-day operations of each electric co-op.

In terms of size, the service territory of some Colorado electric coops is larger than a lot of eastern states. For instance, Southeast Colorado Power Association (headquartered in La Junta) serves about 10,000 consumers over 13,000 square miles in 11 counties; Southeast has a customer density of 1.8 members per mile of line. Meanwhile, Holy Cross Energy serves more than 59,000 members in a more compact, three-county area of western Colorado and has a customer density of more than 18 members per mile of line.

In addition to the simple size difference of the various co-op service territories, the geographic and socioeconomic diversity of Colorado electric co-ops is also significant. Colorado’s electric co-op service territories include the agriculture-oriented eastern plains, the urban and suburban Front Range, the Western Slope resort and ski areas, the desert plateaus of southwestern Colorado and all points in between. Co-ops serve the entirety of Colorado’s “persistent poverty” counties (those where 20 percent or more of the population has lived in poverty for the last 30 years) as well as some of the wealthiest ZIP codes.

Our co-ops range in size from White River Electric Association, headquartered in Meeker, which is the state’s smallest electric co-op with 3,300 meters, to Intermountain Rural Electric Association, which is the state’s largest with nearly 160,000 meters. While some Colorado coops serve areas of fast-paced population growth and economic activity, others are experiencing net population decreases and stagnant economies.

Of course, the political diversity of Colorado is also reflected in co-op boards and policies. While much of co-op service territory coincides with areas that are decidedly red with Republican voters, there are many areas in coop service territories where the predominant voter registration is Democrat or unaffiliated.

All of this is to say that one size does NOT fit all when it comes to legislation and regulation of electric cooperatives.

Requirements that raise costs to the co-ops might be more easily absorbed by a co-op with more consumers per mile of line paying the costs. Those same requirements may be an extreme burden for a co-op with only a couple of consumers per mile of line paying that same cost. One co-op may have consumers in the higher income brackets willing to pay more for electricity to ensure it comes from preferred fuel sources, while another co-op may have consumers struggling to pay the electric bill at the current rate. Some co-ops need help with infrastructure where growth is rampant. Others need help with economic development where there is no growth.

Colorado’s co-ops are diverse businesses, yet all Colorado electric co-ops agree on core co-op principles: providing safe, affordable and reliable electricity; democratic member control by locally-elected boards; concern for the communities we serve; and the continued ability to determine our own fate without the help of our legislature or Public Utilities Commission.

After all, if you’ve seen one electric cooperative. …

Colorado’s Co-ops will Electrify Villages

By Kent Singer, CREA Executive Director

Colorado’s electric co-ops are mission-driven organizations. By that, I mean that co-ops provide more than just reliable and affordable electricity to rural Colorado. Co-ops understand that they are part of the fabric of the rural communities they serve, and they are committed to improving the lives of the folks who live in those communities.

Co-ops are also aware that in many parts of the world, the miracle of electricity has not yet arrived. Incredibly, over 1 billion people on this planet do not have access to electricity and the comfort, health and safety that come with abundant light and power. Our national trade association, the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, has been doing its part to address this situation by funding electrification projects in dozens of countries for decades through its international foundation. This work has improved the lives of millions of people around the world.

Last fall, the board of directors of the Colorado Rural Electric Association decided that Colorado’s electric co-ops should be more directly involved in supporting the NRECA International program. The board authorized its own project in 2018. CREA will work with Oklahoma electric co-ops to provide electricity to two villages in Guatemala this fall.

In April, CREA Director of Safety and Loss Control Dale Kishbaugh and Director of Member Services and Education Liz Fiddes traveled to Guatemala for the initial project planning. CREA folks joined their counterparts from Oklahoma to meet with local officials in Guatemala and develop the logistics for a three-week project that will be completed in September. The project will extend power lines into the villages of Pie del Cerro and Tierra Blanca Salinas, providing power to 200 families, as well as five churches, two schools and two health centers.

In July, our group of Colorado electric co-op linemen traveled to Oklahoma City to meet with their fellow Oklahoma linemen and prepare for the Guatemala trip. The linemen met and got to know each other as the beginnings of a true team were established. The crews reviewed techniques that will be used in these remote villages where there is no access to bucket trucks and other tools typically used by co-op linemen. Instead, the crews will build electric distribution facilities the old-fashioned way, using picks, shovels, ropes and pulleys; it will be backbreaking work in the heat and humidity of Central America.

During the team-building trip, the guys also got a chance to eat together and talk shop. While co-op linemen have similar skills and training, it takes time for line crews to develop the type of camaraderie that makes for a successful working relationship. The participation of the Colorado linemen is possible not only due to the support of CREA, but also due to the willingness of local electric co-ops to send their employees to Central America for three weeks. The linemen themselves are making a sacrifice, since they will be away from their families and give up luxuries like hot water and internet service. They are committed to the cause, and all of them are participating out of a desire to help those in need.

You might ask why should CREA spend funds to support programs outside of Colorado, indeed, outside the United States? One of the core values of electric co-ops is “concern for community.” There’s no doubt that this principle normally refers to the coop service territory, but CREA also believes that those living without electricity around the world are part of the community that co-ops understand all too well. Co-ops believe that access to electricity is a basic human necessity, and that when we have the resources to reach beyond our borders to help others, we should act.

I’ve been involved with CREA for 22 years in one capacity or another, and in my view this is the best project the statewide association has ever sponsored. We believe it will not only change the lives of those villagers who are currently without power, but it will also forever change the lives of those co-op linemen who participate. Our tremendous co-op employees will once again be fulfilling the co-op mission this fall in Guatemala.

4th of July Reflections on Patriotism, Freedoms

By Kent Singer, CREA Executive Director

The Fourth of July is my favorite holiday. As a kid growing up in Topeka, Kansas, I looked forward to the annual celebration of America’s birth because it usually included all the elements of a perfect day: a baseball game in the morning, an afternoon picnic (featuring my mom’s homemade peach ice cream), and an evening band concert in the park followed by fireworks.

I remember one Fourth of July in particular, the bicentennial year of 1976. The country was still recovering from the Watergate scandal that resulted in President Richard Nixon’s resignation in 1974. Vice President Gerald Ford had been sworn in as president and he was the one who presided over many of the national events that celebrated the 200th anniversary of the founding of our country.

Like every day, July 4, 1976, was a great day to be an American; we had a heckuva party in Topeka. I played trumpet in the Santa Fe Band (the railroad sponsored the band) and we concluded the July 4 concert with a rousing rendition of John Philip Sousa’s “The Stars and Stripes Forever.” That march is, of course, synonymous with the Fourth of July, and I still get chills when I hear the trombones roar into the last stanza and the trumpets stand up and bring it home.

If you were around for the bicentennial (and if you have read this far you probably were), you know that it was a special day in American history, a day when unabashed patriotism and love of country were on full display. American flags flew from most homes, kids marched in neighborhood parades and families took the time to count their blessings for the freedoms and privileges that come with being an American.

I think many people of my generation worry that the Norman Rockwell version of patriotism that we experienced in our youth has gone away, never to return. It seems that the whole notion of patriotism is a little old-fashioned in this self-obsessed age of Twitter and Snapchat.

Or maybe patriotism is alive and well after all. That’s the message I took home from one of the speakers at the CFC Forum, a conference I recently attended in Indianapolis, Indiana. The Forum is sponsored by a cooperative known as CFC (short for National Rural Utilities Cooperative Finance Corporation), a lender to many electric co-ops. The Forum is an annual conference where speakers from around the country speak on topics ranging from new developments in the electric industry to the economy and global politics.

One of the highlights of the 2018 CFC Forum was the presentation made by Gen. John Allen, formerly the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan and currently the president of the Brookings Institution. Gen. Allen spoke about the “four plus one construct” that refers to the four countries (China, Iran, North Korea, Russia) and the extremist jihadi network that are destabilizing influences around the world. Allen explained in great detail how these states and organizations threaten the security of the United States and other countries.

But despite these threats, Allen remained optimistic about the state of U.S. national security. Why? Because “of the magnificent young men and women who volunteer to serve in the armed forces.”

Allen pointed out that, although today’s military is comprised of young men and women of incredibly diverse religious and ethnic backgrounds, there is one common denominator among the troops: their complete devotion to America and what it stands for.

So, on this Fourth of July I hope you and yours enjoy great food, fun and fireworks. Just remember that your ability to do so is a gift from those magnificent young soldiers who are stationed around the world, defending our freedoms.