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Dissimilarities and Similarities of Electric Cooperatives

September 4, 2018

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. …

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One Comment
  1. Tim Peggram permalink

    Kent, very well written

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