Save Rural Arkansas

The Great Depression slowed economic progress across the country to a breakneck pace. As recently as the mid-1930s, nine out of 10 rural homes in the United States had no electricity.

According to the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association: “Farmers milked cows by hand in the dim light of a kerosene lamp, and families relied on the wood-burning stove and washboard for cooking and cleaning. The unavailability of electricity in rural areas has kept their economies entirely dependent. Factories and businesses, of course, preferred to locate in towns where electricity was easily acquired.

“For many years the power companies ignored rural areas. The first official federal government action pointing the way to today’s rural electrification program came with the passage of the Tennessee Valley Authority Act in May 1933 This act authorized the TVA council to construct transmission lines to serve “farms and small villages not otherwise supplied with electricity at reasonable rates”.

It had long been rumored that President Franklin D. Roosevelt was considering creating an Arkansas River Valley Authority, but encountered strong opposition from powerful Democratic Senator Joe T. Robinson of Arkansas. Robinson was close to Arkansas Power & Light Co. founder Harvey Couch, who did not want government-subsidized competition.

On May 11, 1935, Roosevelt signed Executive Order No. 7037, establishing the Rural Electrification Administration. A year later, the Rural Electrification Act was passed by Congress and the REA loan program began.

NRECA notes, “Within months, it became apparent to REA officials that established, investor-owned utilities were not interested in using federal loan funds to serve sparsely populated rural areas. Loan applications from agricultural cooperatives poured in, and REA soon In 1937, the REA drafted the Electric Cooperative Corporation Act, a model law that states could pass to permit the formation and operation of nonprofit electric cooperatives. consumer-owned profit.

“In the four years following the end of World War II, the number of rural electrical systems doubled, the number of consumers connected more than tripled, and the kilometers of live lines increased more than fivefold. In 1953, more 90 percent of US farms had electricity.Today, 99 percent of farms nationwide have electric service.

Even though Arkansas had a population of 1.95 million in 1940, the vast majority of rural Arkansans lacked electric service. In 1937, Governor Carl Bailey had enacted Act 342 to provide a legal basis for electric cooperatives to be incorporated. The state’s first cooperative hydro pole was erected in 1937 by First Electric Cooperative in Jacksonville.

Bailey appointed utility commissioners who were sympathetic to rural co-ops. The state issued rulings setting affordable wholesale tariffs for cooperatives, paving the way for the approval of REA loans.

The Arkansas Federation of Agricultural Bureau and the University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service also worked to organize farmers, register cooperative members and review plans for rural electrical systems.

Cooperatives now cover 60 percent of the state. In 1942, the cooperatives pooled their resources to form a statewide association, Arkansas Electric Cooperatives Inc. The distribution cooperatives formed a closely associated generation and transmission cooperative, Arkansas Electric Cooperative Corp. , in 1949.

The AECC, AECI, and the state’s 17 electric utility cooperatives now collectively market themselves as the Electric Cooperatives of Arkansas.

“Providing electricity to Arkansas farms and communities of less than 2,500 people was expensive,” writes Mary Suter for the Central Arkansas Library System’s Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “Rural areas averaged fewer than five customers per mile of power line, compared to an average of 15 to 20 per mile in urban areas. To recoup the costs of building a line and make a profit, private utilities charged rural customers more per month. Due to the high tariffs, farmers used an average of 40 kilowatt hours per month, while city dwellers typically used at least 500.

“Low usage by rural customers made it less profitable for private utility companies to serve them. Prior to REA, rural electric service was limited. In 1930, 2.1% of farms in Arkansas had electric AP&L Couch understood that electrifying farms could increase farm incomes. AP&L had electrified the rice paddies around Stuttgart in 1918.”

In 1935 Couch started an additional rural program by building lines to Prattsville in Grant County. AP&L was, in fact, the first private utility in the country to offer low-cost financing to wire rural homes. Couch has also implemented a monthly payment plan for device purchases. The co-ops later adopted Couch’s so-called Arkansas Plan.

“Three electricity cooperatives were incorporated in June 1937,” Suter writes. “There was First Electric Cooperative, serving parts of Lonoke, Prairie and Pulaski counties; Woodruff Electric Cooperative, serving part of Woodruff County; and Farmers Electric Cooperative, serving part of Jackson County. Four other cooperatives were incorporated later in 1937.

“First Electric energized an initial 58-mile line on April 15, 1938, after borrowing $190,000 from REA to build 211 miles of line to serve 675 members. The seven of the 1937 co-ops energized the lines the The last co-op, Rich Mountain, was incorporated in 1945. By 1950, 67% of the state’s farms had been electrified.

This Monday, I’m sitting in a grand ballroom at the Red Wolf Convention Center in Jonesboro, preparing to speak at the summer co-op meeting. Hundreds of people from across the state are in attendance.

The AECC is owned by its 17 member cooperatives with 34 directors and 325 employees. AECI is also owned by the 17 cooperatives with 315 employees.

AECC, as a wholesale electricity supplier, has annual sales of over $727 million. It owns or contracts 4,280 megawatts of generating capacity and then transmits power through two regional transmission agencies. The AECC serves 1.3 million members and brings in millions of dollars to member co-ops every year.

AECI, on the other hand, is involved in utility equipment sales, right-of-way clearing and vegetation management, substation construction, high-voltage equipment testing, government affairs and public relations. . Its Arkansas Living magazine has approximately 950,000 readers each month.

Vernon “Buddy” Hasten became President and CEO of AECC and AECI in October 2019. Hasten, originally from Iowa, enlisted in the United States Navy in 1986 as an operator of underwater reactor and quickly rose through the ranks. The Auburn University graduate was assigned to nuclear submarines and shore missions during a 20-year career. In his last assignment, he was Technical Assistant to the Deputy Director of Fast Attack Submarines.

After retiring from the Navy in May 2007, Hasten returned to Iowa as regional production manager for Alliant Energy’s Iowa-based power plants. He joined Associated Electric Cooperatives in Missouri in 2011 as plant manager. Hasten was promoted to senior manager of plant operations and reliability in September 2012 and vice president of engineering and construction in January 2018.

I have long believed that electrification saved rural Arkansas in the 20th century. It enabled people to shelter from the heat, to refrigerate their food and to mechanize agricultural operations.

Now, as I tell those gathered in Jonesboro, broadband Internet services are just as important to rural Arkansas in the 21st century as electricity was in the 20th century. Under Hasten’s leadership, the co-ops take a big step towards broadband. More on that in next Sunday’s column.

Rex Nelson is editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

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