The theme for Tennessee’s electric cooperatives in 2017 is “Unified.” We’ve just completed one of the most contentious elections in our nation’s history, and this country is as divided politically as ever.

With that backdrop, many of you gathered in Nashville in late November for the Tennessee Electric Cooperative Association’s annual meeting. There, we focused on the things that bring us together rather than those that push us apart.

Our role at the Tennessee Electric Cooperative Association (TECA) is to provide leadership, advocacy and support to co-ops, their employees and board members. The annual meeting marks our preparation for the coming year. TECA provides leadership through our educational programs, advocacy through our communications and legislative efforts and support through our mutual aid programs. Our efforts are designed to empower co-op leaders to perform their mission of improving everyday life for co-op consumer-owners.

During the course of the meeting, attendees were given updates on the political climate and what to expect in the coming months and years. A major issue this year is our relentless effort to bring broadband to rural Tennessee. Rural residents deserve the same access to essential services as their urban and suburban counterparts. Without the access that broadband internet provides, our communities are left behind in education, economic development and healthcare. This is our century’s great effort — like rural electrification was for the 1900s.

We took time to honor legislators who have gone above and beyond in their commitment to our cooperatives. State Sen. Ken Yager received the first K.T. Hutchinson Award. We also recognized Megan Lewis, a delegate from Tri-State Electric Membership Corporation on the 2015 Youth Tour, who won a $10,000 scholarship provided by Tennessee’s electric cooperatives.

Though the annual meeting lasted only a few days, communications, government relations, education and training are activities that go on year-round. TECA’s role is to train our cooperative employees and directors to be leaders. Our education and training programs elevate the effectiveness and professionalism of co-op directors and employees, increase workplace safety and prepare co-ops for the rapid changes impacting our industry. These are critical roles that TECA fulfills for our member cooperatives.

Working together and speaking with one voice that carries a unified message amplifies the impact we have. It is critical to our cooperatives and the communities we serve.

You can learn more about TECA’s Scope of Work here.

Question: What do you do for a living?
Answer: I can tell you, but I’d have to kill you.

We’re not secret agents, but we do have more knowledge than the general public about cyber security concerns. We work hard to mitigate fear mongering and any sense of panic among our members.

At the same time, we need to be cognizant of the dangers of cyber theft and malicious intrusions from hackers – both in our ability to manage the grid and maintaining the privacy of our members.

In rural America, the distance between substations, even between members, can be significant. The electronic devices that we use and how we access them allow us to know when disruptions occur and to quickly respond. As the use of technology becomes more prevalent and increasingly complex, the risk of security breaches grows.

“We have in our minds the picture of a hacker as some 15-year-old in his parents’ basement. That used to be the case but it’s not now. Hackers are bots hitting 10 million systems at once, just looking for a vulnerability,” says Bill West, vice president of underwriting at Federated Rural Electric Insurance Exchange. He also adds, “The average cyber insurance claim costs $733,000.”

Any information technology expert that is involved in cyber security will confirm that attacks are frequent. We know this from the industry reports we read. Data breaches can expose the private information of our members and should hackers gain access to control systems, they could disrupt power flow. Throwing a political tilt into cyber issues, hacker attacks are often from foreign countries.

Across the nation, electric cooperatives are participating at every level – from local, regional and national exercises to legislative improvements that affect information sharing between governmental agencies and utilities. (S. 754, in which electric cooperatives had input)

We recognize that because we are rural and comparatively small, it doesn’t mean that we are at less risk than large utilities. As Deputy Energy Secretary Elizabeth Sherwood Randall said last year, “If we don’t protect the energy sector, we are putting every other sector of the economy in peril.”

Let’s make certain that we take cyber security as seriously as we take keeping the lights on. It’s just one more thing to add to our “To Do” list.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Over the past few years, we’ve seen a dramatic increase in the number of scams targeting our consumers’ pocketbooks. In one, a caller posing as a co-op employee threatens to shut off service unless the member provides immediate payment using a reloadable debit card, prepaid gift card or online payment service like PayPal. That’s not the way that we operate. Education and communication help reduce the number of victims, but some of our members still fall prey.

There are other schemes that fall into a category somewhere between outright scam and shady marketing. Many are legitimate products that truly help manage and lower energy usages; such as programmable thermostats, energy efficient appliances, timers, etc.

Unfortunately, many are not. When the first pitch is “What The Electric Companies Don’t Want You To Know“, there is a good chance that the product is questionable. The implication is that we are out to steal our members’ money.

Fact: We want our members to have lower electric bills. It’s just sometimes difficult to convince them of that fact.

As member-owned, non-profit cooperatives, we operate on margins that don’t include paying dividends to investors. We don’t have to generate record profits to increase our stock price. Every dollar taken in is used in running the system or re-invested back into the distribution system.

We encourage our members to use less electricity. What other business has that type of business plan?

When energy saving devices can cut electric bills – we want everyone to know about them. Electric cooperatives frequently gave away compact fluorescent or LED lights; we provide free advice on energy efficiency; we promote geothermal heating and cooling systems that can dramatically reduce your electricity consumption. We do everythiing we can to help our members use less electricity.

And despite what our members have been told, electric cooperatives and TVA encourage the use of renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar. We need coal, but that’s not all we’re about.

The bottom line is that we are concerned about our members’ bottom line. Our primary concern has always been keeping the lights on. That concern isn’t limited to keeping the power flowing, it also means keeping energy affordable.

So, the next time you see the phrase, “what your utility doesn’t want you to know,” tell your members to put their hand on your pocketbook. As we’re doing that, let’s make an extra effort to educate them on the measures that they can take to lower their bill – that’s something that we do want them to know.

by David Callis, executive vice president and general manager

The Tennessee State Fair is a celebration of rural life. Recently we had the opportunity to help flip the switch and “light the midway” during the fair’s opening ceremony. It was only fitting that rural electric cooperatives were on hand to turn on the lights.

It was a perfect representation of what more than 2,600 electric co-op employees do each day across the state. The power we provide does more than chase away darkness – it powers the technology and innovation that connects us, it creates opportunity for jobs and commerce, and it ensures the safety, comfort and convenience that we often take for granted.

A lot goes on behind the scenes to get power to your home. There are people like John Spence, the Gibson EMC lineman who helped turn on the switch. There are engineers, member service representatives, foresters and communicators who work together to make a very complex job look easy.

Success means that the lights come on when our members flip the switch and their bill is affordable when it arrives in the mailbox.

Too often, our continued success is jeopardized by politicians and bureaucrats in Nashville or Washington. That is why our Take Action campaign is so important. If you have not already, please visit and submit your comments to the EPA on the Rule 111(D).

During the opening ceremony, we had a chance to meet Zoe, a young lady struggling with a serious medical condition. Her wish of being a princess came true as she proudly wore her tiara on stage with us. Her moment was made possible by the incredible efforts of the Make-A-Wish Foundation. I encourage you to learn more about their work at

The rural roots we celebrated at the state fair are a part of our DNA as electric cooperatives. The self-sufficient character of rural residents is something you can’t really explain; you have to experience it.