Let There Be Light Part 3: Territories:  A Genesis Story

This is the third in a series on electricity, compiled in 2015 but never published before now in The Dade Planet.

To understand how there came to be three independent electric companies within one not particularly large northeastern Alabama county, you have to go back a ways. “And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the earth” –

Well, maybe not that far. Just this far, to quote another genesis story, this one from Energy Vision 2020, a TVA report: “The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) was established by an act of Congress in 1933 as a federal corporation to develop the natural resources of the Tennessee Valley region and to improve the lives of the region’s population, which was being ravaged by the Great Depression, flooding along the Tennessee River, and erosion of the region’s natural resources.”

Thomas Edison’s 19th-century inventions had led to the first investor-owned utility company (IOU) in 1880 and then the first commercial power plant in 1882, and by the 1930s, major cities in America were already glowing with electric light.

But drive your Model T a mile outside town and you couldn’t help noticing that darkness was most certainly upon the face of northeastern Alabama. Customer density was then – and is now – a crucial cost factor in power delivery, so that stringing wire to the scattered farms of the countryside was not just a monster job but a financial no-go.

Then, in 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt roared into the White House with the New Deal, an aggressive lineup of programs that would change the face of America. Roosevelt wanted electrification to spur industry and bring the country out of depression, but he also wanted it for Farmer and Mama Jones. So he launched TVA during his first year of office; then, in 1935, the Rural Electrification Administration (REA) was created.

TVA built dams, rigged plants and shortly began generating masses of affordable electricity. REA at the same time began awarding cheap federal loans for the installation of systems to deliver it. Electrification moved across the countryside so quickly – one might say at the speed of light – that lamps were twinkling in rural DeKalb County by 1940. By the mid-1950s, even the most remote areas of America had been wired.

This let-there-be-light miracle had been accomplished not just by the vision of Roosevelt, not just by the ingenuity of the TVA engineers, but by the will of the overall- and apron-clad country people themselves, through a new form of business hybridized for the purpose: the electric cooperative. In a co-op, Farmer and Mama Jones and the neighbors they went to church with scraped up the $5 or so for membership and thus became the decision-making joint owners of their very own nonprofit corporation, which promptly got an REA loan and began wiring farmhouses.

It was a case of “power to the people” in more sense than one, and the people were grateful, so much so that the electric co-op has occupied a hallowed place in the American consciousness ever since. The official history of the electric co-op, written in 1984, is entitled “The Next Greatest Thing,” “next greatest” referring to the co-op, the “greatest” thing it is “next” to being the original speaker of “Let there be light.”

But more about co-ops and their workings later. For now, let’s look at territories.

The first electric co-op in America was formed in 1934 and within a couple of years there were a thousand, spreading across the countryside wherever a few neighbors banded together for the common good. Over 900 remain in America today, 23 of them in Alabama, two of those in DeKalb.

“The territories, my understanding is they just naturally evolved,” said Sand Mountain Electric Cooperative (SMEC) chief executive officer Mike Simpson. “They just both started building lines and when they got to a point where they met, they didn’t overlap.”

SMEC, one of the two co-ops in DeKalb, centered in Rainsville, was established in 1940; the other, Marshall-DeKalb Electric Cooperative, began in 1941, growing out of Boaz.

Now SMEC serves about 30,700 households in DeKalb, Jackson, Marshall and Cherokee counties, with 75 employees and a board of nine directors elected by co-op members. MDEC has 55 employees and serves 19,399 customers, all in Marshall and DeKalb counties. MDEC is also governed by a nine-person, member-elected board of directors. Both co-ops buy power wholesale from TVA and sell it to residential and commercial end-users.

So does the remaining electric company in DeKalb, the Fort Payne Improvement Authority. FPIA is a municipal public corporation, or “muni,” another business model used extensively in New Deal electrification. Fort Payne, a mining boomtown during the late 19th century, had become a sock-manufacturing boomtown early in the 20th, and already had electricity infrastructure in place. FPIA, created in 1940, bought the existing power plant from the city council and has delivered electricity ever since to a territory that has since expanded outward from downtown in all directions.

Now FPIA serves approximately 8400 customers and is overseen by a five-member board of directors. Those figures are from FPIA’s website. As for number of employees, FPIA would not provide that information without an open-records request, and declined, through its attorney, to be interviewed.

To be continued ….

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