Singleness of Purpose

What is the single purpose we have in running an electric cooperative? Serving our members by keeping the lights on and the rates low. You’ve heard – or said – that refrain for years. It is simple, direct and resonates with employees and members.

And, it is absolutely true. Just ask the members we serve.

A number of years ago, an electric cooperative (not in Tennessee) hired a new general manager who promised to change the status quo. He did. His initial contact with the cooperative was as an outside consultant hired to review the organization and suggest changes that would revitalize and “improve” the business. Once hired, the manager immediately began to reorganize departments, change titles and revamp the entire cooperative. The changes he enacted were innovative and quite a bit different.

The changes — and the manager — didn’t last long. I remember that when he left, he made a statement to the effect that he was “good at tearing down walls and not so good at building and maintaining them.” There were a number of failures, but the core failure was that the changes became the focus. Instead of focusing on the one purpose of the cooperative, the focus was placed on the cleverness of the changes.

That doesn’t mean that change is a bad thing. But, change for change itself isn’t always a good thing. Change that loses sight of our reason for existence is doomed to fail. It will fail the cooperative, the employees and the members.

As long as we do that one thing correctly, other avenues open up for us to continue to improve and invest in the communities we serve. Countless other things are vitally important to our members: economic development, great customer service, effective communications and many other needs. But if we fail in our single purpose, it’s time to refocus on the one thing.

Safe, reliable, affordable

Last September, Tennessee’s electric cooperatives were privileged to participate in the opening ceremony of the Tennessee State Fair in Nashville. And during the fair, we provided Tennessee residents the opportunity to share their concerns about the Environmental Protection Agency’s proposed Clean Power Plan.

A year later, we are again participating in the “lighting of the Midway,” and, yes, we are still having issues with the EPA.

The EPA recently released its final Clean Power Plan. This version of the rule calls for a 32-percent cut in greenhouse gases by 2030 (compared with 2005 emissions). The draft version of the plan called for a 30-percent reduction.

We’re concerned about the quality of the air we breathe and the impact carbon sources have on the environment. We’re concerned about the world we leave for our children and grandchildren. But we’re also concerned about the world we live in today — in particular, the reliability and affordability of the electricity on which we depend each day.

The Tennessee Valley Authority has significantly reduced carbon emissions from the coal-fired generating plants that help supply the electricity that powers our states. Before the Clean Power Plan even takes effect, TVA has already reduced carbon emissions by 30 percent from 2005 levels.

Some aspects of the final rule are still unknown. At more than 1,000 additional pages, it is still being analyzed for its impact on Tennessee and other parts of the country.

Our concerns are that the EPA rule could create reliability problems and unnecessarily drive up costs. States and regional power providers (like TVA) are best situated to control the generation and distribution of power. Utilities across the nation are incorporating renewable energy sources and making improvements that have vastly improved air quality.

“Safe, reliable and affordable” means something to us. We’ll keep you updated on the impact of the rule and how your co-op can speak up for your members.

Staying Power

Another successful Washington Your Tour is the in books. All told, that makes 50 times that Tennessee has made this annual investment in our rural youth.

Past alumni include military and civic leaders, legislators, and the occasional business leader. In fact, none other than Apple CEO Tim Cook took his first trip to Washington, DC compliments of his local electric cooperative.

In talking about his first visit to the center of our democracy, Cook said, “In the summer of 1977, I was 16 years old. At the end of my junior year of high school, I won an essay contest sponsored by the National Rural Electric Association. I remember very clearly writing it by hand, draft after draft after draft.” He mentions that his family was too poor to afford a typewriter.

Cook was one of two students from Baldwin County, Alabama chosen to go to Washington, along with hundreds of other kids from across the country. This year’s Tour brought 1,700 students to DC. Tennessee alone accounts for 10% of that number.

You might not think that a one week trip could make a difference in someone’s life. But you would be wrong to think that. A phrase that I have heard from participants – past and present – is that this was the “trip of a lifetime.”

That’s the goal toward which we are aiming.

The students learn about their government, our nation’s history, electric cooperatives (we are sponsoring the trip!), and they learn how to make a difference in their community.

We invest millions of dollars each year into building and improving the electric infrastructure in our communities. We take investing in the future of our youth just as seriously. Wires and poles, hearts and minds – both are critical for our communities to thrive.

Who could have predicted that a poor high school kid from Alabama would someday be the CEO of the worlds’ largest company? We don’t know what leaders may come out of this year’s class, but it’s an investment we’ve been making for the past half century; and one that we’ll continue to make.

You never know just how great of a return you’ll receive.

Energy Independence

Last month, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit rejected an early challenge to the Environmental Protection Agency’s proposal to curb carbon dioxide emissions from existing power plants, saying the legal action was premature. The panel did not rule on the merits of the lawsuit, stating that objections to the plan were filed too soon because the regulation has not yet been finalized. When the rules are finalized later this year, there will be additional challenges.

The decision was just the latest milestone in the long journey to energy independence. Though it remains unclear if the Clean Power Plan will withstand legal challenges, it doesn’t alter the changes the electric utility industry has undertaken over the past few years.

These changes predated EPA’s Clean Power Plan by several years. Case in point, I wrote the following in The Tennessee Magazine’s July 2007 edition:

We are at the beginning of our own revolution — an energy revolution. Last month, we talked about the changing political landscape and the climate change debate. In fact, it seems that every other headline these days is something about climate change, greenhouse gases, carbon emissions and global warming. The climate change issue has brought about political change — change that will affect us, our children and our grandchildren.

The change won’t occur quickly, that’s for certain. There is no “magic bullet” that is going to solve our energy needs and clean up the environment. Steps toward lowering our energy consumption will go a long way toward lessening our carbon emissions. However, as our population grows, conservation and efficiency can’t solve all of our problems. It will take a long, deliberative process that is going to involve individuals and governments. Developing cost-effective energy alternatives will take a massive technological effort and investment.

Hybrid vehicles, once a novelty item, are rapidly gaining an anchor in the marketplace. Compact fluorescent lamps are quickly replacing incandescent lights in our homes and offices.

There is a long list of renewable energy technologies that today are in their commercial infancy: Solar, wind, geothermal and landfill methane are just a few. As we develop and improve the technologies for harnessing these resources, those energy sources may become more commonplace.

Our current reliable low-emission energy sources — hydro and nuclear — will continue to be a part of our achieving our energy-independence goals. Even coal-fired generation, while contributing to carbon emissions, can be improved through technological advancements that greatly reduce the amount of greenhouse gases emitted.

As we begin this revolution, there is hope for the future. EPRI, the Electric Power Research Institute, suggests “it is technically feasible to slow down and stop the increase in U.S. electric sector carbon dioxide emissions and then eventually reduce them over the next 25 years while meeting the increased demand for electricity.” For example, technologies are currently being developed that would capture and store carbon dioxide in underground caverns.

Those trends have continued — and accelerated — during the past eight years. New housing construction and appliances are even more energy-efficient. Renewable energy resources such as solar and wind are implemented more each year.

Just as our electric cooperatives brought another degree of independence to rural America more than 80 years ago, we remain committed to being involved in a sustainable, renewable energy future as we look toward our nation’s energy independence.

Engineering success

There are a number of constants in the electric utility industry: keeping a watchful eye on the weather, a 24/7 readiness to respond to weather emergencies, innovation, intensive investment and poking fun at engineers.

OK, the last one isn’t work-related, but it is a constant. Engineers often don’t understand why we would joke about them, but those of us who aren’t engineers make fun of their people skills. For example: How do you tell an introvert engineer from an extrovert? Well, the introvert engineer stares at his shoes; the extrovert engineer stares at yours.

There are many more, but I’ll spare you. Granted, not all engineers are “socially challenged.” I’m certain I’ll hear from the more communicative engineers.

Truth be told, our daily lives would be far less productive and much more difficult were it not for the creative minds of engineers. Being a well-known engineer even aided the political rise of President Herbert Hoover. Long before he served as secretary of commerce, Hoover was known as “the great engineer” for his work around the globe, first in mining and then public service. His methodical organizational skills aided relief efforts for thousands in war-ravaged Europe and victims of flooding in the Mississippi Delta.

In the electric utility industry, where vice president of engineering is a common executive-level position, engineers are critical to our success. Each day, engineers painstakingly design the substations and electric distribution network that make up the electric grid. They have to map out the locations for the lines to best serve today’s members while allowing for growth. Their everyday work involves complex calculations and reviewing lots of data to ensure that we have enough electricity to power our homes and businesses.

There may be a good reason that engineers seem, well, preoccupied. It takes a special mind to be able to visualize solutions to difficult problems. It takes a lot of concentration and an ability to organize those thoughts into real-world solutions. Engineers make it look easy, so it’s only fair that we give them some relief for any lack in communications skills.
Here’s to the engineers who make our lives better. If those minds weren’t solving problems, we would be living in a far different world.

Cable Disconnect

Last month, Arkansas’s electric cooperatives faced an unexpected attack by cable TV concerns. Under the guise of promoting broadband, the cable giants wanted huge reductions in the pole attachment rates charged by the state’s rural electric cooperatives. Cable’s claim was that pole attachment rates were limiting broadband expansion into rural areas.

Sound familiar?

To address that concern, the cooperatives’ first overture was, “We will work with you, but will you guarantee that you will provide broadband services to all of our rural members?” Not surprisingly, the answer was no.

Therein lies the rub: There is quite a disconnect between what the cable companies profess to want and what they really want.

This was not an effort to provide broadband for rural Arkansans; it was a brazen attempt to generate more profits for cable company shareholders.

One of the large cable giants has the following sentence in its corporate Code of Conduct:  “Since no code or policy can spell out the appropriate behavior for every situation, you should talk with your supervisor – or refer to any of the resources listed throughout the Code – when you have questions or concern.”

What? That’s not an operational policy that explains billing or installation issues. It’s a code of conduct — how you treat the customer.

Perhaps cable officials meant well when they drafted that statement. Somewhere along the way, however, an easy, quick answer was lost. Perhaps the company should go with something as simple as … tell the truth.

We operate a little differently. In the lobby of NRECA’s main office stands a statue of a lineman. The lineman symbolizes everything for which we stand: keeping the lights on, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

A phrase used to describe the U. S. Post Office reads, “neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night…” Fact is, that signifies our linemen’s dedication to duty. It is the reality that they embody each day. Among the first responders in any emergency situation, you will always—always—find electric co-op lineman. Their dedication to duty and commitment to their communities are unquestioned.

Our electric cooperatives are driven by commitment and principle: to improve the quality of your life. Not profit, not fame, not trying to determine the “appropriate behavior.”

It’s about telling the truth and doing the right things, something that is intrinsic in the cooperative principles by which we operate.

This month, we celebrate our linemen, men and women who don’t need a code of conduct to know how to do the right thing.

Cooperation among Cooperatives

Let’s just say it – we’re tired of cold weather.  This winter has brought us bitter cold, snow, and multiple rounds of ice. Statewide, our systems have experienced tremendous damage that has taken days – in some cases weeks – to repair.

The Cumberland Plateau was hit the hardest with an inch of ice. High winds compounded the strain, resulting in fallen tree limbs, downed power lines and broken poles.

Cumberland County Emergency Management officials called it the “worst natural disaster in the history of Cumberland County.” Veteran emergency responders said the damage was comparable to an EF-2 tornado ravaging the entire county. Clyde Jolley, longtime Volunteer Energy Cooperative employee, said, “In my 42 years with VEC, this is one of the worst weather events I’ve ever seen. We had more than 700 broken poles and an estimated $9.5 million in damage to the system.”

At the peak of the storm some 40,000 VEC members lost power. The Tennessee Valley Authority’s transmission line outages caused a loss of power to five VEC substations, and major breakers were lost at three other substations.

Nature can destroy in a few hours what took years to build. Before the storm left the area, VEC employees were already hard at work for their members, calling for assistance from neighboring cooperatives.

The hallowed cooperative principle of Cooperation among Cooperatives took center stage from the beginning of the storm until the last member was reconnected many days later.

VEC crews received assistance from crews from Appalachian Electric Cooperative, Athens Utility Board, Caney Fork Electric Cooperative, Cumberland Electric Membership Corporation, Fort Loudoun Electric Cooperative, Holston Electric Cooperative, Middle Tennessee Electric Membership Corporation, Rockwood Electric Utilities, Sequachee Valley Electric Cooperative and Upper Cumberland Electric Membership Corporation as well as contract crews from Davis Elliott, Galloway, MPS, Seelbach and Service Electric.

Co-op members, many of whom were without power for days, recognized the difficulty of the situation and the effort that VEC was making.

Rody Blevins said 650 people were on the scene working to restore power and were supported by dozens of other staff members. “We appreciate the hard work of our folks and the help we received from around the region,” Blevins said. “And we especially appreciate the patience and support from all our members who were affected by this devastating storm.

“This has been one of the most challenging weather events in the history of Volunteer Energy Cooperative, and we are very grateful for the cooperation, dedication and patience of everyone involved.”

The members of Volunteer Energy Cooperative can attest to the fact that Cooperation among Cooperatives isn’t just a mantra; it’s how we co-ops do business.

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Commitment to Community

In 1965, fourteen high school juniors loaded left Nashville for Washington, DC. The purpose of the trip was twofold – to educate them about rural electrification and how their government operates.

Fifty years later, Tennessee’s Washington Youth Tour program is still going strong. This year, we will send 150 students and 40 chaperones on the Tour. More than any other state!

For some of these students, the trip marks a number of firsts; their first trip out of state, their first time on a plane, and their first visit to our Nation’s capital. They are given the opportunity to see a larger perspective on their world and their future.

The trip lasts a week; the impact lasts a lifetime. For many students, the trip will begin a journey that charts the rest of their lives. Past participants have become CEOs, educators, and legislators.

This past year, two students from Southwest Tennessee Electric will continue to make an impact in their communities and far beyond.

Kai Starmer, from Munford High School, has been accepted into the Naval Academy in Annapolis. Josh Owen, from Covington High School, has been accepted into the Citadel Military College in South Carolina.

Marilyn Means, marketing coordinator at Southwest Tennessee Electric, said it best:

“We should be very proud of these two students who represented STEMC in DC this past June. Despite of all the ‘bad’ we hear about the youth of today, I have had the opportunity to witness exceptional youth as I go into our schools and share the cooperative story and to appreciate their leadership abilities as we travel to DC each year. I have been blessed to see students grow in leadership roles during and after our trip. I am so thankful that STEMC allows me to ‘pay it forward’ to the youth in our service area. It makes me proud to work for the electric cooperative.”

Hairstyles and fashion may have changed a lot since 1965. The commitment of Tennessee’s electric cooperatives to our youth and our communities has only grown stronger.

Energy Education

“Education is learning what you didn’t even know you didn’t know.” This quote, from historian Daniel Boorstin, sums up the challenge that we face in the electric utility industry.

As we get older, we (hopefully) become fairly well educated and consider ourselves to have a wider breadth and depth of knowledge. We tend to have a reasonably good knowledge in our job and perhaps a few other areas. But it’s a big world and it’s difficult to be an expert in every field.

I have – at best – a cursory knowledge of farming. In fact, if we’re dependent on my farming skills to feed us, we’re all going to starve. Recently, a friend and colleague of mine told me about an innovation that he was using at his farm. He began using large grain bags as temporary corn storage. He tells me that this technique is used in other countries, but isn’t common in the United States. His farm uses specialized equipment that attaches to a tractor, which provides the power source for an augur that fills the bags. Each plastic bag is 10 feet wide by 300 feet long, holds 12-13,000 bushels and is not reusable. He described them as “Hefty bags on steroids.”

The point of the story is that this is something that I never knew existed, but this temporary storage can help make the difference in his farming operation being successful and grain being available when needed. That’s important. I now know something that I didn’t know that I didn’t know.

By its very nature, electricity is charged – positive or negative. Unfortunately, energy policy has become politically charged. That’s not something of our choosing, but it is the reality in which we operate.

That’s where we come in. We need to be their source of information. Because of the abundance of opinions – many of them incorrect – in the energy policy arena, we have an obligation to our members to provide them with facts. Many people are making decisions based on erroneous information.

Let’s help them know what they don’t know they don’t know.

Leadership

Leaders come from all walks of life. Some are thrust into leadership roles because of their family lineage — which sometimes doesn’t bode well for themselves or their followers. Some assume the role because of their skill or expertise, which hopefully provides a platform for developing into a leader. Some become leaders because they’ve been elected. Others are selected because they show some sparks of talent or commitment that convey their ability to lead.

One of the speakers at the TECA Annual Meeting was Sen. Bob Corker. The senator offered his assessment of the current Congress and the challenges facing our nation and state. Corker, whose prior service was as the mayor of Chattanooga, remarked that he believes there is “no greater service than someone serving their community on the local level.”

Some leaders fall in the category of “Subject Matter Experts”, such as NRECA’s John Novak and TVA’s John Myers. Their combined expertise covered numerous topics, from the legality of the Clean Power Plan to EPA allowing Watts Bar Unit 2 to count toward achieving Tennessee’s carbon reduction targets.

But you don’t have to have grey hair to be a leader or even be old enough to vote.

This year’s Youth Leadership Council winner was Denisha Patrick. Denisha is from Chickasaw Electric Cooperative in Somerville, who received the honor by being selected by her peers. If you heard her speak, you saw the leadership qualities she possessed.

All of these leaders have one thing in common: a desire to make life better in their local community. It’s a matter of commitment, ability, and desire. That’s what makes for a good leader and it’s what we have to exhibit every day as we lead Tennessee’s cooperatives.