The Faces of Electric Cooperatives
November 17th, 2011 by Kalie Eyman

Utility employees celebrate co-op month and what it stands for

Wayne Hawes stands near his truck outside the co-op after a day out repairing lines for Surprise Valley Electric. Photo by Lynn Culp

Wayne Hawes stands near his truck outside the co-op after a day out repairing lines for Surprise Valley Electric. Photo by Lynn Culp

Every October, cooperatives across the country from a variety of industries celebrate cooperative month. 2012 will mark the United Nations International Year of Cooperatives.

With this yearlong campaign, the United Nations hopes to increase public awareness about cooperatives and their contribution to socioeconomic development, and to encourage the support and growth of cooperatives.

The International Cooperative Alliance and the United Nations strive to promote and celebrate a business model that benefits both members and owners instead of shareholders.

Here are just a few faces out of the 100 million jobs provided by cooperatives around the world, according to the International Cooperative Alliance.

Wayne Hawes, Foreman at Surprise Valley Electric
Wayne has been a foreman at Surprise Valley Electrification Corp. in Alturas, California, for 20 years. His favorite part about working at a co-op is the opportunity to work outside and meet different consumers in the community.

John Gerstenberger, Hood River Electric Cooperative

John Gerstenberger, Hood River Electric Cooperative

“I was a mechanic for several years, but I was just stuck in a shop,” Wayne says. “So I decided to take a leap of faith. I started out as an apprentice and just learned the ropes and experiences after being here for quite a while and working up the ladder.

“Now I get to work outside, and looking back I don’t have any complaints at all. I like what I do and it’s pretty easy to come to work. I love getting to meet people in the community and working outdoors with the consumers. Most of our work is in rural areas so we get to be outdoors, and it’s just a bunch of nice people to work with.”

Wayne’s typical day consists of going out and either repairing lines, or building new lines.

“We also do right of way clearing,” he says. “At this co-op we do everything that needs to be done or that the supervisor asks us to do: substations, tests, regulator checks, we do it all ourselves. As foremen we do what we can to add stability and try to keep the rates as low as possible. We maintain what needs to be worked on so power can be stable, and we work hard not to tear up our equipment.

“It’s a balancing act to maintain our equipment and keep the rates low in this economy. If you have a good board like we have, they just take in what people’s needs are. They balance what we need as foremen and what the consumers need, and meld everything together to come up with the best product.”

John Gerstenberger, General Manager at Hood River Electric
John began his career at Hood River Electric in Odell, Oregon, in January 1986 as the head of operations and engineering. He later was offered the position as general manager. Before he joined HREC, he worked with the co-op as an employee at a local engineering firm. He found that job through an ad in Ruralite magazine.

Vi Stevens, Salmon River Electric Cooperative

Vi Stevens, Salmon River Electric Cooperative

“Our co-op is one of the smallest,” John says. “As a result, my role is quite diverse. I get involved in most aspects of the business. Working for a co-op means you get to work with folks—members, board of directors, employees.

“As a small organization, our structure is relatively flat. I am not isolated from the day-to-day activities or our members. Members are appreciative of the work we do on their behalf and often express that sentiment verbally, with a short note or by dropping off a tray of cookies at the office.

“We need to have our finger on the pulse of our communities and the things that are important to them. The co-op business model is very consistent with the neighbor-helping-neighbor attitudes of our agricultural economic base, which is mostly tree fruit: pears, apples, cherries. A number of co-op businesses in our area provide other essential services, such as fruit storage, packaging, marketing, agricultural supplies and irrigation water supply.

“Co-ops are people-oriented organizations. They do things on behalf of members rather than just offering a product that may or may not provide the best value or fit the customer’s specific need. Co-ops are free to explore different options and opportunities to best meet member needs and desires.”

Vi Stevens, Executive Secretary and Benefits Administrator at Salmon River Electric
Vi has worked at Salmon River Electric in Challis, Idaho, since August 1988, when she was hired as a receptionist. In 1990, she was promoted to executive secretary, a position she will hold until her retirement in 2012.

Phyllis Clough, Alaska Village Electric Cooperative

Phyllis Clough, Alaska Village Electric Cooperative

“Our co-op is very small with only 16 employees, and I like the smaller work setting,” says Vi. “After working in California with 600 employees in the county government, I realized that smaller is better. I think working at a co-op brings greater unity among employees than in the private sector. Having a good benefit package that co-ops offer also is very important to me.

“Salmon River Electric is located in Challis, Idaho, a small town with less than 1,000 people. I think concern for community speaks for itself here in that people are willing to help their fellow members through both good and difficult times, be it family or friends. The communities in our service territory are always willing to lend a helping hand.

“Co-ops working together have the opportunity to enhance their businesses. One example is the NRECA list serve option where co-ops can share information among employees to help strengthen their business. By sharing information, they may not have to reinvent the wheel in establishing a policy or they may possibly obtain new ideas on how to increase membership at annual meetings.”

Phyllis Clough, Board Member at Alaska Village Electric
Phyllis became involved at the cooperative after her dad served as a board member for 12 years. She first participated as a delegate, and became a board member in 2003.

She has lived in Old Harbor on Kodiak Island in Alaska her entire life, and enjoys representing her community at board meetings.

“We’re the leaders that are responsible for trying to enhance the community,” Phyllis says. “We strive for lower dependence on diesel, and just affordability and reliability of power.

“The best part about serving on the board is having the opportunity to work with the AVEC association and watching the cooperation of everyone working together. Through the board we strive to create stable power and develop sustainable options like our wind program.

“The co-op presence is very important because AVEC is so spread out. There is a lot of diversity between the different communities. The main thing is that every one of us board members are from communities, but when we meet as a board, we meet for the benefit of all 53 communities, not just the area we came from.”

Public Power Week Celebrates 25 Years
This year, Public Power Week, October 2–8, celebrates 25 years of recognizing and promoting public utilities. Public power utilities, called “An American Tradition that Works” by the American Public Power Association, always celebrates Public Power Week the first full week in October.

According to American Public Power Association President and CEO Mark Crisson, public utilities are dedicated to having a strong influence in the future of America’s energy policies, as well as providing environmentally responsible electricity.

The average public power customer pays 15 percent less in electricity rates than the average investor-owned utility customer. Public power utilities use several renewable energy sources, the two highest being hydropower, which accounts for 65 percent of renewable fuel generation, and wind power at 18 percent, according to the APPA.

From local spaghetti feeds to informational events, public power utilities across the country celebrate by reaching out to their communities.