Seven Up

By Magen Howard | RE Magazine
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RE Magazine looks at how seven electric co-ops are putting the seven cooperative principles into action

Cooperative Principle No. 1: Open and Voluntary Membership

When Rappahannock Electric Cooperative in Virginia acquired territory from an investor-owned utility, 51,000 new consumers came with it. The challenge: educate them on what it means to be a member, not a customer.

Kent Farmer, Rappahannock Electric president & CEO, chats with a young consumer. | Photo: Rappahannock Electric Cooperative

Rappahannock Electric Cooperative employees understood they faced a unique situation. Thanks to a deal with a neighboring investor-owned utility, the distribution system was about to become the third-largest power provider in Virginia, adding 51,000 new members who had no idea what it meant to be part of an electric co-op.

In June 2010, the Fredericksburg, Va.-based co-op, in partnership with neighboring Shenandoah Valley Electric Cooperative, based in Mount Crawford, had purchased a total of 102,000 homes and businesses, 5,739 miles of distribution line, 315 miles of subtransmission line, 43 substations, three service centers, and 103 employees, along with trucks and other equipment from Potomac Edison, a subsidiary of Allegheny Energy, as that company pulled up stakes and exited the Old Dominion State. To incorporate its share of assets from the $314 million agreement, Rappahannock Electric decided to show, not tell, the cooperative difference as it went about the business of delivering superior service across a now 22-county service territory stretching from the Blue Ridge Mountains to the tidal waters of the Chesapeake Bay.

“We wanted to create an avenue for our new members to become part of the cooperative and understand their governing roles,” says Brian Wolfe, public relations specialist. “While we had 75-plus years of history and a really good relationship with our 102,000 existing members, that wasn’t present in the investor-owned utility area.”

To acquaint newcomers to the co-op, a special event was held where more than 1,000 of them turned out to meet staff and learn about “the cooperative way.” Then the co-op took that approach to the next level by conducting “Get Connected” days at local fairs throughout its territory for all members.

“Accessibility to the co-op and staff has been a key objective,” remarks Kent Farmer, Rappahannock Electric president & CEO.
“Our service territory had become so spread out that some members might have to drive a couple of hours to reach our annual meeting site. Having a Get Connected event in each of our districts offers the opportunity for people who can’t attend our annual meeting to discover more about us.”

At Get Connected, attendees learn one-on-one about the co-op’s right-of-way maintenance, electrical safety, energy efficiency, and community service programs.

“They really help create a down-home local feeling,” Wolfe notes.