An abbreviated version of this piece was initially published in our Spring 2022 newsletter.
When America began to electrify, lights came on first in cities. It made commercial sense: the city’s affluent could easily foot the cost of power, and urban density meant less line to lay and easier maintenance. Electricity beyond the city made no sense. Powering far-flung farms and villages meant stretching miles of pole and wire into places where fewer people had the funds to cover expenses, much less make it profitable. It seemed the commercial logic of electricity would keep cities aglow and the countryside dark forever.
Rural Americans who wanted electricity had to organize to get it for themselves. In 1940, the farmers of the Mat-Su Valley created Alaska’s first electric co-op, the Matanuska Electric Association. By the end of that decade, Alaskans had joined with their neighbors to create the Kodiak, Golden Valley, Chugach and Homer Electric Associations.
Alaskans created these democratic electric co-ops to secure a better quality of life. Co-ops give us the same opportunity today — a chance to fight for a liveable climate, affordable and abundant energy, and an equitable distribution of benefits. Very few Americans can so directly steer their energy future.
Today’s electric co-ops, according to the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, serve 56% of the U.S land area but only 42 million people — about 13% of Americans. Following the historic electrification divide, most people in and around cities get power from for-profit utilities owned by investors. As customers rather than member-owners, they cannot elect their utility’s leaders or sit in on their deliberations. They can only influence energy decisions through petitions, phone calls to legislators, advocacy and legal battles. Every spring, Alaskan co-op members can more decisively influence their local energy system with far less effort by voting for a director on their nine- or seven-person co-op boards.
Among the empowered minority of American co-op members, Alaskans are a minority within the minority — members of co-ops that control both distribution and “G&T,” or generation and transmission. The distinction is technical, but being “vertically integrated” has big implications for the reach of your vote. Distribution co-ops deliver electricity to members, but they buy power from larger G&T co-ops rather than generating it themselves. G&T boards aren’t elected by end consumers, but appointed by distribution co-op boards. G&T meetings are usually closed to distribution co-op members, and the needs of these two classes of co-op aren’t always aligned.
Before Lower 48 co-ops can even begin the challenge of building clean local energy, they spend years and millions of dollars on legal struggles with their G&Ts. Alaskans get to skip this step. All three electric association (EA) co-ops in the Cook Inlet watershed: Homer (HEA), Matanuska (MEA) and Chugach (CEA), control their electrical systems from generation to transmission to distribution into your home. HEA technically buys power from a G&T subsidiaries, but this is only an on-paper distinction set up for better access to financing. HEA is the sole member of this subsidiary co-op, and they have identical elected boards.
Being their own G&Ts causes Alaskan co-ops plenty of expense and headache, but for members seeking a better energy future, there’s a hidden blessing: our co-op boards have almost unique power over their own electrical systems. Alaskans have a lot to lose from climate change, and a lot to gain from clean, local energy. It just so happens that through our co-ops, we also have an extraordinary opportunity to act.
Thank you for reading. We are able to do this work because of member support from concerned citizens like you. Please donate today to protect Cook Inlet for our future generations.