Rural Electric Cooperative Toolkit

August 2019

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Summary :

At the start of the Great Depression, 90% of rural households lacked access to electricity. For most private companies there wasn’t “enough” money to be made supplying electricity to remote places.


Enter: Rural Electric Cooperatives (REC).

Thanks to public investment and New Deal programs like the Rural Utilities Service, electric cooperatives sprung up all over rural America. Today there are more than 850 cooperatives in 47 states providing service to 56 percent of the nation’s landmass, from the bustling suburbs in Austin to rural farming communities in Eastern Kentucky.

Founded on the cooperative principle of democratic member control, REC customers are also member-owners of the business. This innovative structure is a huge strength. By replacing private shareholders with cooperative members, the need for massive profits takes a back seat to the needs of the community (and the planet).

At the same time, RECs aren’t perfect and that’s part of the story too. Many RECs have excluded black and indigenous communities they served and perpetuated leadership that doesn’t represent or engage their membership.

However, by giving members a voice in how the business is run, RECs have the potential to transcend their historical roots, meet their community’s needs and be more than just energy companies. They can be leaders in renewable energy development. They can be internet service providers. They can mobilize investment as part of a Green New Deal just as they did during the New Deal era. They can invest in revitalization and infrastructure projects, and anything else their members decide they need.


Here are some examples of what’s possible and happening right now:

Roanoke Electric Cooperative in North Carolina: Nearly 50 years of active engagement and organizing by majority Black membership has resulted in one of the most inclusive and impactful RECs in the country, one that is explicitly committed to creating a customer-centric utility of the future.

Pedernales Cooperative in Texas: member-owners of the largest REC in the US overturned corruption and reformed their co-op; which still faces attacks against fossil-fuel-backed interests.

Ouachita Electric Cooperative in Camden, Arkansas: Success at this REC includes offering broadband, energy efficiency, and solar. Quote from Mark Cayce, CEO: It seems counterproductive; why would any utility supplier want to sell energy at a lower price and decrease their profit? “Well,” says Cayce, “We’re in the business of serving our members, not selling electricity.”

Today we’re launching the Rural Electric Cooperative Toolkit, a resource for the over 40 million electric cooperative members in America. Created by a group of organizations convened by the New Economy Coalition, the toolkit aims to support co-op members who want to get more involved in their RECs.

The toolkit is arranged in four different sections and includes beginner resources for those brand new to RECs, success stories and case studies, as well as mapping and popular education tools for those ready to get to work and organize their REC. It’s a living and breathing resource, so please email Liz@WeOwn.It to add or update to it!

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