Regular readers know how much attention this magazine devotes to the history of Wisconsin’s electric cooperatives. A big reason is that Wisconsin was a pioneer within the rural electrification movement, and it’s no exaggeration to say that during the 1930s and ’40s, electric co-ops were a crucial part of bringing rural America fully into the 20th century.
Last month marked another milestone in a history still being written. After 20 years operating as a division of the Wisconsin Federation of Cooperatives (now Cooperative Network), the Wisconsin Electric Cooperative Association (WECA) returned to its historic status as a stand-alone organization. The WECA governing board held its first meeting in modest but serviceable, rented office space in downtown Madison three days after the Fourth of July.
The nation’s first statewide electric cooperative association, WECA operated as a stand-alone organization for three-fourths of its 80-year history. (We marked the 80th anniversary of its founding on April 30.) The resumption of independence followed discussions involving all cooperative business sectors in Wisconsin beginning last year and has much to do with the kind of challenges the early electric co-op leaders organized to meet—challenges WECA Board Chairman David Paudler described as “unique to electric cooperatives among the many sectors represented in a joint co-op organization.”
Through its first 60 years, WECA responded successfully to issues that threatened the very survival of electric cooperatives. The issues confronting electric cooperatives today present no lesser threat to our co-ops and their member-owners.
Prominent among those is a tidal wave of federal regulation creating severe jeopardy for co-ops trying to continue their mission of providing reliable, affordable electricity to rural residents and businesses.
Nationwide—and Wisconsin is no different—electric cooperatives serve populations that are exceptionally vulnerable to the damaging economics of high-cost, low-benefit regulation. Most of the Wisconsin counties with extensive electric co-op service areas have disproportionate numbers of elderly residents on fixed incomes, and countywide average household incomes tend to be below the statewide mean.
When a sluggish economy puts pressure on investor-owned or municipal utilities, they have their investors or government entities as a backstop. Not so with electric cooperatives. If a sluggish economy combines with rising regulatory costs to aggravate economic stress, there’s no one to pick up the burden except the co-op members who own the organization. That’s why you so often see and hear us sounding off on issues of public policy. It’s a question of survival in a rapidly changing electric power industry.
Among the rapid changes are greater reliance on renewable energy resources, and it’s a fact that electric cooperatives—again both nationwide and in Wisconsin—already lead the electric utility industry in promoting and developing renewables. Wisconsin’s co-ops are setting the standard, for example, in developing community solar generation.
WECA provides member education, communications, government relations, and other services for our state’s electric cooperatives. Today’s challenges demand the complete attention of the association’s full-time staff, and we plan to carry on our mission successfully as the independent organization the original co-op leaders set out to create, 80 years ago this spring.