Nevada high desert with Ruth Ely Mountains. (Photo courtesy Getty Images/Gunter_Nezhoda)
Nevada high desert with Ruth Ely Mountains. (Photo courtesy Getty Images/Gunter_Nezhoda)

Those lonesome, sun-seared expanses of the West that are so inviting to today’s solar developers were once known as “power deserts,” but for a different reason than you might think. These were the remote, sparsely populated places not served by central-station power—the dark spots on the Rural Electrification Administration’s (REA) map of the U.S.

So when Ely, Nevada-based Mt. Wheeler Power energized its brand-new distribution system in the fall of 1972, REA Administrator Dave Hamil proudly declared that “the last great power desert in the continental United States” had been conquered.

The co-op’s service territory was huge: 16,000 square miles east and west of the Nevada-Utah border, an area larger than Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island combined. And with only 1,161 farms and ranches along 1,100 miles of distribution line in the least populated district, consumer density was far below the REA average of 3.7 consumers per mile of line.

“You battled distance, terrain, climate, and low consumer density to provide yourselves and your neighbors with dependable central-station electric power,” Hamil said at the energization ceremony. “You faced these problems, worked together, merged your strengths, and made a dream a reality.”

Mt. Wheeler Power was 14 years in the making, counting from the day in 1959 when Wayne Gonder invited several neighbors to meet at his ranch in Garrison, Utah, an hour-and-a-half drive east of Ely. He also invited an employee of Garkane Electric Cooperative in southern Utah, an electrical engineer from Salt Lake City, and two REA field men.

By all accounts, it was a productive meeting, but the next steps took months and years.

In October 1963, the founders filed incorporation papers in Carson City with the Nevada secretary of state. Ten days later, they elected a board of directors at a meeting in Ely, and each of these nine men took home a stack of membership applications to distribute in their far-flung communities. After 225 signed applications were collected, the board hired an electrical engineer, Clare Olsen, to begin mapping and designing a distribution system.

It was soon apparent that irrigation pumps, not homes, schools, and rural businesses, would be the co-op’s bread and butter—80 percent of its annual revenue. But when REA crunched the numbers, it concluded that irrigation rates would have to be set higher than ranchers were willing to pay in order to service a 35-year loan with a 2 percent interest rate. Mt. Wheeler Power needed to find more consumers.

Luckily, about this time (1966–1967), the board learned that Ely Power & Light Company, a small family-owned utility, was looking for a buyer. Its 3,358 customers and 196 miles of line could be the hub from which Mt. Wheeler Power reached out across long north-south valleys of the power desert.

REA encouraged the purchase. With Ely Power & Light in the fold, Mt. Wheeler Power could set reasonable rates. The revenue would allow the co-op to pay off its debt while maintaining lines and substations and putting aside small margins.

Hamil rewarded this sound business plan with a $15.1 million loan, the federal agency’s largest to date. It enabled Mt. Wheeler Power to not only buy Ely Power & Light, but also to build 223 miles of 138-kV transmission line, 113 miles of 69-kV line, and those 1,100 miles of new distribution line.

Gonder, who became the board president, had chased the co-op dream for 14 years and seen it come true. He hoped the comfort and convenience of central-station power would “encourage our young people to stay here and farm and ranch.”

Olsen, who had been hired to manage the new co-op, talked about “the dawning of a new day when electric power will be key to economic development and prosperity for the people we serve.”

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