In the early 1930s, most urban areas of the United States, including Texas, had enjoyed electric service for 50 years. But beyond the city limits, there was darkness. Private power companies turned down requests to provide service to sparsely populated rural areas – they decided the effort was simply not profitable.
Private power companies also believed farm families couldn’t afford electricity and really had no need for it, so many of the conveniences taken for granted in American cities were unknown to rural families. Farm and ranch wives were still cooking on wood stoves, children were doing homework by the dim light of coal-oil lamps and family members were pumping water by hand, just as they had done for centuries.
Local farmers and ranchers decided that if they were going to get power, they would have to bring it themselves by forming local cooperatives. The impact on rural quality of life was electrifying.
Rural Cooperative Movement
Before 1935, about 90 percent of rural people lived without electric power. In the midst of the Great Depression, President Franklin D. Roosevelt pledged “a New Deal” to the American people. One of his New Deal initiatives for economic recovery was rural electrification.
In 1935, President Franklin D. Roosevelt created, by executive order, the Rural Electrification Administration (REA). The following year, Congress made the REA a permanent agency.
The goal of the REA was to provide electric power to rural America, but its method was indirect. The actual implementation came through local people forming cooperatives. Functioning as a loan agency, the REA provided financing for the effort and when existing power companies would not build power lines out into the country, rural residents joined together to receive loans and establish electric cooperatives.
Birth of JCEC & EREC
Johnson County Electric Cooperative and Erath County Electric Cooperative were formed in 1938, around the same time as many other Texas co-ops. The "vast system” of each co-op would establish more than 300 miles of wire. (Today, United has nearly 30 times as much line.)
In November 1938, an article in the Alvarado Bulletin reported that work had begun on the Johnson County co-op:
“Construction work on a vast system of transmission lines that will make electric current available to rural residents was started last Monday morning. The first stake was driven on the J.S. Hallman place by Tom S. Senter, member of the Johnson County Electric Cooperative board of directors.”
Growth of Cooperatives
By 1940, 567 cooperatives across the nation were providing electricity to more than 1.5 million consumers in 46 states. Today, United is one of Texas’ 64 electric distribution cooperatives that provide safe, reliable electric service at the lowest possible cost to the state’s nearly 3 million member-consumers. Texas co-ops own more than 260,000 miles of lines serving more than 1.2 million meters in 244 of Texas’ 254 counties. A total of 930 electric co-ops serve 35 million people in 46 states across the country.
Electric cooperatives are different from other power providers. As cooperatives, they are tax-paying, non-profit businesses owned by the consumers they serve. As member-owned utilities, the distribution systems are self-regulating. Finally, as voluntary organizations open to all people who are able to use their services, co-ops also are democratic and members actively participate in setting policy and making decisions.
To perform their mission, electric cooperatives deliver approximately 10 percent of the total kilowatt-hours sold in the U.S. each year and employ nearly 60,000 people in the United States. Co-ops across the country serve an average of 7 consumers per mile of line and collect annual revenue of approximately $8,500 per mile of line. This is a stark comparison to investor-owned utilities, which average 34 customers per mile of line and collect $59,000 per mile of line, and publicly owned utilities, or municipals, which average 44 consumers and collect $72,000 per mile of line.
Before President Roosevelt’s initiative, only 11 percent of the rural homes in America had central station service. Today, nearly 1,000 rural electric cooperatives have electrified nearly the entire rural area of the United States. This accomplishment, more than any other one factor, closed the cultural gap that existed between rural and urban life.
Bringing Power to the People
Looking back, it’s sometimes difficult to comprehend the commercial and cultural transformation that rural electrification brought to Texas.
But co-op power meant more than light; it demonstrated, with government help, farm and ranch families were able to shape their own destinies. What modern utility provider would today inspire a poem as merry and heartfelt as the one penned on the occasion of JCEC’s first anniversary?
Here’s to Rural Electrification
It has brought joy to many a heart,
And here’s to some of the people
Who to secure it have played a great part.
Many believed we could organize
The Johnson County R.E.A.
While others shook their heads and said
“You’re throwing your time away.”
A year has passed, success is yours.
It’s a pleasant dream come true.
So it gives us joy to say tonight,
“Happy Birthday to You.”
Today, the rural electric cooperatives are a significant part of the electric utility business. They operate more miles of electric lines than the combined totals of all other electric utilities in the country.
Johnson & Erath Become United
In 1999, after more than 60 years as separate entities, Johnson and Erath cooperatives began work on consolidating their operations, to better compete in Texas’ deregulated electric industry.
The consolidation proposal was put before the respective memberships and passed overwhelmingly. On April 1, 2000, a ribbon-cutting ceremony unveiled the sign for the new entity’s new name: “United Cooperative Services.”
So what is United Cooperative Services? Besides a new name, United is a larger enterprise that will result in more efficiency and economy for its members.
Today, United Cooperative Services is one of more than 60 electric distribution cooperatives in Texas and one of more than 900 electric cooperatives across the country. We now serve a very diverse membership with more than over 83,000 meters in 14 counties. That’s a big change from 65 years ago. But in all the important ways, United hasn’t changed at all. We’re still committed to the communities we serve, to personal attention, technology, reliability and to bringing the best benefits at the lowest possible price to the people we work for: our members.
2016 United Cooperative Services. All Rights Reserved.