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Why co-ops say “Our Power is our People”

IT IS PERHAPS THE BIGGEST OVERSIGHT of my two decades working in Louisville radio and television. 

Though I interviewed thousands of people in my career, including leaders in politics and industry, and Kentuckians in all walks of life, it wasn’t until 2015, my final year on the air at WHAS-TV, that I finally learned what Kentucky’s electric cooperatives are all about.

After interviewing United States Sen. Dan Coats of Indiana about his work on the Senate Intelligence Committee regarding cybersecurity, I decided to investigate threats to critical infrastructure in Kentucky. Most power companies and utilities would not talk to me, but the electric co-ops did. 

I didn’t fully understand what the cooperative form of business was about. Cooperatives around the world live by core principles and values. In reporting that story, I learned that these principles are why electric co-ops operate differently from for-profit electric utilities. The co-ops’ transparency and genuine commitment to their consumer-members are a breath of fresh air. They put the needs of their members first and constantly look for ways to reduce the cost of energy for members. 

Nearly seven years later, I now head the communications efforts for the statewide association of Kentucky’s electric co-ops. As we mark Co-op Month in October, I want to highlight how Kentucky co-ops have worked to overcome pandemic restrictions and stay engaged with their consumer-members.

Electric cooperatives continued to engage with consumer-members throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. Owen Electric staff talks with members during the 2021 member appreciation day drive-thru event, while registering 2,402 members for its annual meeting. Photo: Whitney Duvall

Even before COVID-19, co-ops all across Kentucky were innovating to serve their consumer-members and deliver timely and relevant information. In the pages of Kentucky Living, on websites, social media feeds and videos, through responsive voices on the phone and in-person conversations at community events, in co-op lobbies and during annual meetings, Kentucky’s electric cooperatives earn members’ trust every day. When they ask how to solve an energy problem for their home or business or have questions about how the electricity they use is generated and delivered, co-ops are a reliable energy advisor. 

As the pandemic progressed, co-ops adjusted in the best interests of members, adapting member appreciation days to stay safe and creatively promoting energy efficiency and safety. Co-ops proactively engaged with members who were struggling to stay current with their bills, connecting them with resources and helping them find solutions that fit their financial situation. 

Despite this impressive commitment to community, when I contacted local co-ops to compliment them on this success, one by one they responded with the same ethic, that they were simply fulfilling their co-op mission of service to their members.

SEVEN COOPERATIVE PRINCIPLES 

  • Voluntary and open membership 
  • Democratic member control 
  • Members’ economic participation 
  • Autonomy and independence
  • Education, training and information 
  • Cooperation among cooperatives 
  • Concern for community 

“If you want to thank anyone,” one co-op leader told me, “thank co-op members. We do not exist without them.” 

Because co-ops are led by, were built by and belong to the communities they serve, it should not come as a surprise that they are plugged into local concerns. The boards who guide the direction and vision of co-ops are democratically elected by fellow co-op members and accountable to them— not to out-of-town shareholders or special interest groups. Safely delivering electricity is a complex effort, and board members receive training in many areas to be able to provide an informed supervision of co-op operations. 

While I am inclined to thank those boards and co-op staffs for their tremendous commitment, I am also inspired by their example to instead credit the co-op members who make it all possible. It is your membership in and engagement with your local co-op that makes all the difference. 

So, on behalf of the electric cooperatives all across Kentucky, thank you. 

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