The Rise of the New Power Co-Op Movement

Breakdown at Copenhagen. Climate legislation stalled. EPA regulation of
greenhouse gasses threatened. Is climate protection dead?

Maybe not. Climate protection has gone local. Political leaders may
fiddle while the world burns, but grassroots groups around the country
are organizing to cut greenhouse gas emissions and build a greener
future for their communities. Block by block and using every tool at
their disposal, groups are fighting to green schools and workplaces;
setting up networks of green job training centers; installing solar
water heaters in low income communities; and halting new coal-fired
power plants with both political and direct action.

One of the least known but most promising examples of this
"localization" of climate politics is the greening of utility co-ops to
create affordable and renewable energy, green jobs, and regional green
development. These efforts may well represent the beginning of a "New
Power Co-Op Movement" that can help jump start the shift to a new green

Electric co-ops are owned by their customers, who are called
"members" due to their dual role as customer/owner. Their primary
mission is to provide access to electricity at affordable prices for
every potential member in their service area.

Electric co-ops were created as one of President Franklin
Roosevelt's New Deal programs in order to promote rural development. The
first electric co-op was born in 1934 in the back of a furniture store
in Corinth, Mississippi. Within a few years, it had thousands of
counterparts across the nation.

Today, America's 930 electric cooperatives are the sole source of
electricity for 42 million people in 47 states -- nearly 12 percent of
the nation's population. They control $100 billion in assets and $31
billion in member equity.

What Matters in Kansas

In western Kansas, rural
communities, farms, and businesses get their electricity from Midwest
Energy, the electric co-op based in Hays, Kansas. The co-op has
pioneered an energy conservation strategy known as "on-bill financing."
It has developed a program called How$mart that provides money for
energy efficiency improvements such as insulation, air sealing, and new
heating and cooling systems for residential and small business
consumers. Co-op members -- whether owners or tenants -- don't have to
put up any money "up-front." Instead, they repay the funds through
energy savings on their monthly power bills.

Members start with an energy audit to determine potential savings.
The co-op develops an individualized conservation plan. Members choose a
contractor. If the member moves or sells the property, the deal passes
to the next customer at that location.

The program started with a pilot in four rural counties in the
summer of 2008; it then spread through rural Western Kansas. A year
later it had invested $1 million in more than two hundred rural homes
and businesses. It is estimated that customers will save over 400,000
kilowatt-hours per year, enough to power forty homes. That will put
13,000 fewer tons of carbon dioxide into the environment over the next
twenty years. The Environmental Defense Fund recently recognized
How$mart as one of America's best energy innovations.

"New Power" in Kentucky

For decades residents of
eastern Kentucky have been fighting Big Coal's destruction of their
majestic environment and cherished way of life by coal extraction. Much
of that fight is led by the statewide citizens organization Kentuckians
For The Commonwealth. KFTC has deep roots in the state's impoverished
mountain communities where coal is mined; many of its leaders are former
coal miners. While it has engaged in direct action against mountaintop
removal, it recognizes that such action is not enough. Kentuckians
desperately need a new strategy for economic development, energy, and
jobs. KFTC is now promoting a plan for "New Power" that would make
eastern Kentucky's electric cooperatives the pivot for such a strategy.

East Kentucky Power Cooperative (EKPC) is a cooperative that is
owned by 16 local electric distribution coops. EKPC generates and sells
power to these co-ops, which serve half a million members in 87
counties. EKPC is proposing to build a new 278-megawatt coal-burning
power plant in central Kentucky along the Kentucky River at an estimated
cost of nearly one billion dollars.

The Smith plant would only increase the dependence of Kentucky on
coal for its energy supply and thereby increase the pressures for
mountaintop removal. The struggle against the Smith plant has led KFTC
to accompany its fight to save the mountains with a search for a "New
Power" alternative.

With the help of KFTC, co-op members are now proposing that the
co-ops not waste their funds on the Smith coal plant, but instead invest
in an alternative plan to meet the power needs of their members through
energy-saving and renewable energy programs. These local energy needs
will be met by a combination of energy efficiency and weatherization
initiatives paid through on-bill financing, along with local renewable
energy, such as small-scale hydroelectric plants and rooftop solar hot
water heaters. The New Power plan would cost less than the Smith Plant
while meeting the same energy demand.

Such a plan would not only provide for eastern Kentucky's energy
needs in a way that would protect the local environment and the global
climate, it would also provide far more and better jobs. According to
EKPC itself, the Smith plant will create only 700 temporary jobs at the
peak of construction and 60 permanent jobs. Yet, according to the Ochs
Center for Metropolitan Studies,an energy plan based on efficiency and
renewables will create nearly 4,600 direct jobs over the same period it
would take to build the Smith Plant. Members of local communities could
be trained and hired for these green energy jobs.

The New Power plan would also significantly lower the utility bills
of co-op members (some co-op members in eastern Kentucky spend more than
50% of income on energy). The estimated cost of electricity from the
alternative plan is 17% less than the Smith coal-burning plant. Money
saved could be invested in affordable housing, environmental
restoration, healthcare, and other job-creating activities. (For more on
KFTC's alternative program read: "A Cooperative Approach to Renewing
East Kentucky".)

Co-op members in Kentucky are weighing the trade-off. According to
Rachel Harrod, whose stepmother ran for a local co-op board this summer:
"I believe there's an alternative that will be better for the
environment, less costly to co-op members, and far more beneficial
economically. The jobs generated by a clean energy portfolio would be a
welcome boost to our local economy. I can't tell you how significant
this would be to an area that has lost much of its agricultural base in
recent years."

In addition to saving co-op members from paying for dirty power, a
New Power program in eastern Kentucky could kick-start a broader agenda
for transitioning Appalachia to the new green economy. Co-ops already
have the key infrastructure in place. And instead of being controlled by
for-profit investor utilities, the new facilities will literally be
owned by eastern Kentucky -- the co-op owners, not distant stakeholders.
These economic benefits will stay in Kentucky and reverberate through
the region.

Greening Economic Democracy

Rural electric co-ops were
once a model for economic democracy. David Lilienthal, a founding
director of the Tennessee Valley Authority, described an electric coop
annual meeting in the 1940s: "Throughout a whole day as many as 2,000
farmers and their wives and children discussed the financial and
operating reports made to them by their [co-op] superintendent and board
of trustees, and later while we ate a barbecue lunch watched new uses
of electricity demonstrated."

He added, "These membership "town meetings" are not simply business
sessions. They have an emotional overtone, a spiritual meaning to people
who were so long denied the benefits of modern energy."

But many electric coops have become distant from such town meeting
democracy. In eastern Kentucky, for example, elections to coop boards
are rarely contested, with many of the officers serving for decades.
Policies are often controlled by coal and other energy companies; as a
result, Kentucky's rural electrical cooperatives are more than 90
percent dependent on coal. That makes rural Kentuckians vulnerable to
rising fuel prices and coal depletion.

Building the new green economy will require the revival of democracy
-- at every level. That's why co-op members, with the help of KFTC,
have begun challenging the entrenched leadership of local co-op boards.
This year, KFTC members Dallas Ratliff and Tona Barkley ran for the
board of the Owen Electrical Cooperative. In her campaign materials
Barkley says: "As a board member, I will strive to make the co-op more
open and democratic. I'll also promote a stronger approach to helping
members improve the energy efficiency of their homes and businesses and a
more aggressive approach to transitioning into more renewable sources
of energy -- to protect members from rising energy costs, to protect our
health, and to create local jobs."

Like Tona, hundreds of KFTC members throughout the state see a clear
link between new democratic power and new clean energy power.

a program could be a model for the 400 rural electrical co-ops with 40
million members nationwide. And that could be a significant contribution
to a new strategy for protecting the global climate -- from below.

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