Who is your power company?

Each year, I go a number of electric cooperative annual meetings across the state. It’s always so nice to attend these gatherings and be reminded of just how important each co-op is to the communities it serves. It’s easy to see because the annual meeting is more than just a business session. Along with the important activities the co-op conducts during the formal meeting, your cooperative’s annual meeting of the members is a lot of other things.

It is part social hour where neighbors catch up about the high school football team and the new restaurant on the square. Hearing folks ask each other, “How’s your momma?” and “Where have you been all these years?!” is heartwarming and reassuring about how we treat one other in this increasingly impersonal society. The meeting is part grip-and-grin politics where candidates for the co-op’s board of directors smile and maybe even kiss a few babies in hopes of earning your vote. I’m sure Norman Rockwell would have loved painting one of those scenes. And it’s part outreach effort where the co-op educates its members about important issues or how it serves the public in some way. For instance, some co-ops might conduct heath fairs and offer flu shots to their members, invite community groups to set up displays to provide information about their organizations, conduct electrical safety demonstrations or provide meals and entertainment for folks to enjoy.

At some annual meetings, I will give a short speech about what is happening in Nashville or Washington, D.C., that affects your co-op. One of my favorite things to do is ask everyone in attendance a question or two. It usually goes something like this: After talking a bit about the difficulty of reliably providing electric power, I will say, “Raise your hand if you are here because you appreciate your power company.” Many hands will go up, and plenty of heads will nod in agreement. They don’t usually expect what comes next.

“Sorry, but you are all wrong. No one in this room gets their electricity from a power company.”

What in the world could I mean by that? I like to let my statement sit for just a moment of uncomfortable silence. Someone on the front row will inevitably turn their smile into a big frown. But, I quickly begin to explain by asking a few other questions: Did you vote to elect the board of directors for the company that supplies you with natural gas? How about the cable company? Your water provider? No. Your co-op is a lot different than all those other companies.

You see, my original question was actually a trick. You don’t have a power company that just sends you a bill at the end of the month. You and your neighbors own your local co-op, and that means that what is good for the co-op is good for you. You’re not a customer; you are an owner, and it’s our pleasure to serve you.

And while Tennessee’s cooperatives lead the pack in important indicators like customer satisfaction, overall value and low rates, it is crucial for the future that your co-op be more than just the best utility provider around. We want to make your life better.

One of the ways we do that is by participating in the process of crafting public policy and ensuring that the decisions your elected officials make are wise and beneficial for rural and suburban Tennessee. And unlike most utility providers, our lobbying efforts aren’t about increasing our profit margins. The advocacy efforts I have the pleasure of working on are for one central purpose: to ensure that your co-op can continue to power everyday life in your community. Period.

However, those efforts are moot if the energy we deliver is either unaffordable or unavailable. So we get involved in any legislative matter that may place unnecessary burdens on your electric bill. I spend my days and nights speaking to your state and federal elected officials about these important topics, and we are fortunate to have the vast majority of Tennessee’s elected officials standing up as strong supporters of electric cooperatives.

But to be successful when it really counts, we sometimes need you to speak up and tell your elected officials that a particular proposal would harm these goals. What is good for the co-op is good for you, but the reverse is also true. When someone proposes something that could harm your co-op, that damage is felt directly by you. Thankfully, your voices are strong and loud. And as we prepare for whatever 2015 may bring, it’s great to know that co-op members all across the U.S. are ready to stand side-by-side to protect this crucial part of your hometown.

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