Shining a Light
On electric co-ops’ dynamic roles

Decades ago, co-ops helped bring electricity to rural Texas. The words of a Tennessee farmer from the early 1940s say it all: “The greatest thing on Earth is to have the love of God in your heart, and the next greatest thing is to have electricity in your house.”
IMAGE: From the book The Next Greatest Thing

Texas Electric Cooperatives President/CEO Mike Williams, chair of the 21st Century Electric Cooperatives Committee, quickly seized upon the opportunity to engage internationally renowned consultant and speaker Roy Spence in a conversation about electric co-ops. Williams says Spence’s energy and vision can only elevate a discussion animated by co-ops’ historic roots and future challenges.

It is important, Williams says, to shine a light on the rich heritage of electric co-ops. “Over 75 years ago, we brought light to vast areas of the country that other utilities did not want to serve,” he says. “The reality is we brought more than light—we brought a quality of life to small towns and rural areas. As important as that was then, maintaining that quality of life may be even more critical today. And electric cooperatives are uniquely positioned to fill that role.”

Historically, Williams says, co-ops have shown resilience in economic downturns, thanks to an ownership structure that “generally is more stable over time compared to other business models because it is less prone to investor turnover, speculative swings or predatory takeover.”

It’s a resiliency born of seeking the greater good, Spence told the committee during its inaugural meeting in January. Drawing an appreciative “Yeah!” from at least one committee member, Spence quoted an oft-cited Tennessee farmer from the early 1940s: “The greatest thing on Earth is to have the love of God in your heart, and the next greatest thing is to have electricity in your house.”

To keep that sentiment alive, Spence told the 13-member group, which met in Los Angeles, electric co-ops must keep putting customers first. “If you’re not fanatically focused on improving people’s lives, people don’t have time for you,” he said.

Co-ops, Spence said, “democratized the American dream.” But to turn past tense into a present-tense purpose—including sparking rural economic and manufacturing growth as successful, nonprofit business models—Spence says co-ops must grab hold of what he terms a “holistic flywheel”: a new movement called conscious capitalism that equally regards business performance and the quality of people’s lives.

Co-ops, through their heritage, know how to do that, Spence said: “You turned the lights on in the past—you need to shine a light on the future.”

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Camille Wheeler, associate editor


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