V I E W P O I N T S
Editor's note: Above is the picture of a gospel band I took in spring 2015. The woman at front left is weeping and testifying about how nice things will be when Jesus comes back. If that sort of thing makes you uncomfortable, not to worry: The band was replaced shortly thereafter by an emcee giving away refrigerators, computers and Blue Tooth sound systems.
I thought I'd walked into the wrong place: I was looking for the yearly members' meeting of the Sand Mountain Electric Cooperative.
But I was at the right address. I had just grown up in the wrong culture to understand. As a child I had lived in an Atlanta suburb; as a college student in Athens, Ga.; as a young adult in Atlanta proper and then--then!-- at the center of the universe, Dade County, Georgia. All these places had their electricity supplied by Georgia Power. It was an investor-owned utility that billed me once a month in a businesslike fashion,and I don't recall once in my whole life it ever inviting me to a meeting, much less to a bash like this, which struck me as a cross between a tent revival and a game show.
What I was experiencing, I soon learned, was one difference between the investor-owned corporate and member-owned cooperative electric company models, which it had never before occurred to me to examine.
Or to examine seriously. Once, just after I had just moved to Rising Fawn in the first place, I did scratch the surface by innocently asking the then-Georgia Power supervisor, whose name I don't remember, why, so close to the Tennessee River, Dade didn't have TVA power. He bit my punkin head off and swallowed it whole.
"You don't know what you're talking about, little lady," he said. "What this is about is the difference between free enterprise and COMMUNISM."
I was sorry I'd asked!
But of course I hadn't really been questioning capitalism. I had only been wondering wistfully why I couldn't get my electric bill a little lower. What did I know?
Because fast-forward now 11 years when, for reasons we no longer remember, my husband and I bought our house in Deerhead Cove. It's a nice private kind of house, just the right size for us, and we've been in the main happy here. But.
But, though it was just the other side of the interstate from our old house, this one was IN ALABAMA. That was going to cause me anguish in a couple more years, when as the entrenched local journalist I knew more about Dade County politics than was strictly decent, and could not vote.
For now though, the trouble it caused was all about utilities. We had a well instead of public water and that turned into a major butt pain. That still bothers us from time to time, but what has been a more constant irritant is the Sand Mountain Electric Cooperative bills, which are routinely double and even triple anything we ever paid to Georgia Power.
From the first, I carped and complained. I wrote letters to the board of directors. I got Sand Mountain Electric to send a guy out to do an "audit." Then, finally, just last year, it occurred to me I was not only a disgruntled consumer, I was a journalist who relished investigating Big Questions. This qualified as a Big Question, didn't it? I mean, why on earth should a nonprofit, member-owned cooperative charge the consumer so much more than a for-profit business?
So I began looking into it, and the answer turned out to be nowhere as simple as you would think. (When does it ever?) I interviewed the CEO of the cooperative, I talked to Georgia Power and to Alabama Power, its sister Southern Company utility. I talked to other co-ops and I talked to TVA. That investigation resulted in this series of articles, which I entitled, "Let There Be Light."
I pitched the series to a Fort Payne, Ala., newspaper, which seemed to be interested in it -- and in me, Reader! -- for some little while. The newspaper in fact, rather than committing to publish the series, hired me in to write other pieces. Thus it was that for a brief unhappy time I found myself explaining to Alabamians why they should eat at Western Sizzlin' or to patronize the establishments of the newspaper's other advertisers. I of course would have preferred to expose corruption, to topple empires -- or at least to explore electric rates fahcryinoutloud! But that was not to be, Reader, because guess who was the newspaper's no. 1 advertiser?
Yes! The very first day I worked there I opened the newspaper to see an entire section had been devoted to the glorification of the local electric co-op, with pictures and history and company-generated PR pieces printed as news. It was something I had not foreseen with all my investigative journalisin'. Co-ops are an important part of their communities and an economic force to be reckoned with. And not one the newspaper I was working for was fixin' to reckon with at all, because that was the hand that fed it.
My association with that rag lasted precisely eight days and I wouldn't mention it at all except to explain how I happened to write this exhaustive investigative piece that has never been published until now, in The Planet. I did not publish it here before because it was aimed mostly not at Dade County residents but at denizens of what I am pleased to call the "Rising Fawn Metro Area" -- that is, the parts of Alabama contiguous to the Center of the Universe. I urge Planet readers who live in that neck of the woods to share it with their neighbors!
The reason I publish it now is that Georgia Power is closing its Trenton office and that that has upset a lot of people in Dade County. In removing any human presence from its provincial territories, Georgia Power is acting like the big,heartless, profit-driven bastion of capitalism it is -- and I guess what I'm really asking here is, is that such a bad thing?
I have long ranted against the profit motive calling the shots in health care, but after my five-article look into electric companies I'm not so sure that that commie-huntin' Georgia Power supervisor 20-plus years ago was wrong, or that heartless corporations have done any worse toward electricity consumers than supposedly "member-owned" nonprofits. As you'll have noted from my introduction, co-ops have to bribe members to participate at all by slinging around huge amounts of the members' own money...
Well, I have carried on too long here and won't say any more. If you are interested at all in the difference between investor-owned and member-owned electric companies -- or if, like me, you have enjoyed the eternal Georgia-Power-Good v. Georgia-Power-Bad struggle waged by Rex Blevins and Johnny Farr on the opinion page of a certain print newspaper that shall not be named here -- I invite you to read "Let There Be Light," which The Planet begins serializing today.
And speaking of leditors-to-the-editor, guys, what Is The Planet, chopped liver? Please feel free to send your opinions to firstname.lastname@example.org, or by U.S. mail to P.O. Box 173, Trenton, Ga. 30752.