Former Co-op Chief Reflects on Years in Power

Former Co-op Chief Reflects on Years in Power
C. Wayne Whitaker, longtime CEO of Southwest Arkansas Electric Cooperative, with his wife, Diana, and daughters Stacey White, left, and Sharla Stevanovic, right. (Chance Allmon/Today's Power Inc.)

C. Wayne Whitaker has a solar array named after him, recognition for 35 years of service to Southwest Arkansas Electric Cooperative in Texarkana, but he took the honor as an opportunity to look back on a lifetime of big events in the cooperative power industry.

Whitaker used a phone interview Tuesday to reflect as he entered his last months with SWAEC, where a successor could be named by the end of the year.

“Thinking back, I recall serving on the board of Arkansas Electric Cooperative Corp., the generation and transmission cooperative in Little Rock that’s owned by the state’s distribution co-ops,” Whitaker said. “Like a lot of utilities in the late 1970s and early ’80s, AECC invested millions and millions of dollars in new plant assets.” That soon seemed to be a mistake as growth lagged and financial stress built up.

“By 1988 or ’89 I was on the AECC board, and we came up with a 2020 goal, and that was to make electric cooperatives strong financially by building the equity we had in those plants. It’s odd looking back that we had a 2020 plan more than 30 years ago, and now we’re in 2020, but the 17 distribution cooperatives had the foresight to agree to do that. And that’s why today Arkansas Electric Cooperative Corp. is one of the highest-rated generation and transmission cooperatives in the country, with some of the lowest electric rates for members.”

He also said Arkansas was wise to reverse course after hastily adopting a particular model of electric utility deregulation in the late 1990s.

“There was a thought that retail open access [also known as “electricity choice”] was the way to go, dividing the electric utility industry up between generators, distributors and then individually owned service providers,” Whitaker remembered. “The Legislature agreed, but then got to looking at details in other states that had done this, and realized that the system was moving away from offering low costs. They realized it was a mistake and changed course.”

But the event that’s most indelible, you might say frozen in his memory, is the monumental 2000 ice storm in south Arkansas. “Somebody sent me a videotape of news from a Little Rock TV station, and they were reporting how unusual it was that they hadn’t heard any reports out of southwest Arkansas in more than 24 hours.”

With a bitter laugh, Whitaker recalled why. “The reason was there was no power at all. The ice had taken down all transmission and distribution lines. There was not one line operating in southwest Arkansas for three or four days. All the utilities, cooperatives and investor-owned utilities had to rebuild everything in a matter of six weeks. We had linemen in from as far away as Georgia, but we pulled together and made it work.”