Nonprofit Cooperatives Serve Thousands Across State

by Luke Jones  on Monday, Apr. 2, 2012 12:00 am  

"It used to be rural, but now, not so much," Roedel said. "Thirty years ago, when you looked at northwest Arkansas, it was probably considered mostly rural. But now, it's not - and those are co-op-served areas."

White said co-ops serve about 90 percent residential members and 10 percent commercial and industrial, but the industrial members tend to be very large, with some notable examples being Nucor Steel of Hickman, the Remington Arms plant in Lonoke and a number of paper factories.

Often, utility cooperatives have community outreach programs. First Electric allows members to round their monthly bills up to the nearest dollar and donate the added change to nonprofit organizations for scholarships, disaster relief and other funds.

"In the last cycle we had in November, there was more than $16,000 given away," said Tori Moss, communications coordinator for First Electric. "It's really an amazing thing that our members do it."


Power Struggle

Challenges for utility co-ops usually come from the federal level.

"The uncertainty of federal energy policy is probably the big one for us," White said. "We build a power plant to last for 50 to 60 years, but with each administration, the rules of the game tend to change. The whole industry was pushed to coal in the '70s and '80s, but now coal is attacked. We went away from natural gas because of its scarcity, and now there's an abundance of natural gas."

Nuclear power was about to have its day, White said, until a 2011 earthquake and resulting tsunami damaged a nuclear plant in Fukushima, Japan.

White said it's also been difficult to balance the demand for renewable energy versus its actual cost.

"A utility customer knows two things about his bill: First, it's too darn high, and second, it better not be as high as last month," White said. "People are clamoring for more renewable energy like solar and wind, but the reality is, when you start talking about the high price tag associated with it, people start to balk."

Other than that, White said, co-ops are portraits of stability. Suburban spread is growing co-op service territory, which gives them more members and the ability to invest in energy efficiency.

Unlike for-profit utilities, member-owned cooperatives have always had an incentive to sell as little electricity as possible at the lowest possible price.

"Co-ops are recognized as leaders in energy efficiency," White said. "We started programs in Arkansas that have been copied nationwide. We were the first to offer green power programs, and we have a higher percentage of geothermal ground source heat pumps than just about anywhere."



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