Adam Schwartz, founder and principal of The Cooperative Way.
Adam Schwartz, founder and principal of The Cooperative Way. (Photo courtesy Adam Schwartz)

What if you could stop right now and recreate your electric cooperative from scratch?

What would you change? Would you even be a cooperative? How would you design and engineer your system? What other things would you change or rethink?

Obviously, this exercise is not a realistic option. But sometimes it’s okay to think unrealistically. It helps us to stretch our minds and takes us to the edge of what’s possible. And right now, as we work to position our co-ops to succeed in an industry whose future looks different from the world we’ve grown and thrived in, there’s great value in occasionally allowing our imaginations to consider even unlikely possibilities.

The last period of significant uncertainty and potential change in our industry was during the deregulation or restructuring movement of the 1990s. That movement brought forth a lot of ideas about how our industry and particularly consumer choice would evolve. Most of the ideas about where the industry was headed back then did not come to pass, but I think the thought process we went through actually helped prepare us to manage the changes we’re facing now.

In the many future-oriented conversations I have with co-op leaders and consumer-members, I’ve noticed four areas that come up repeatedly. These are not the only issues we need to consider, but to my mind, they’re the biggest potential challenges that will require the most innovative thinking.

Issue #1—The distribution/G&T relationship

The stable, dependable relationship between distribution co-ops and their G&Ts is one of the linchpins of electric cooperative success. But we’re beginning to see signs that the time-tested “all requirements” contract may need modernizing. As new technologies and alternative suppliers enter the market, all parties will need to work together to imagine a new relationship that best serves consumer-members and adequately protects co-op investments and commitments.

Issue #2—Renewable energy

Cooperative solar. Microgrids. Community storage. Beneficial electrification. Some of our best, most innovative thinking has already gone into adapting to increasing renewable use. But we’d be fooling ourselves if we thought the future didn’t hold a continual move toward more green energy. Let your consumer-members’ needs, and your role as their trusted energy advisor, guide you as you look for new ways to integrate alternative generation sources in a manner that best serves and protects all of them.

Issue # 3—The co-op workforce

We know that our aging workforce means there will be significant turnover in our industry in the next 15 years. Replacing those long-term employees with people who have the right skills, understand the co-op model, and are willing to come to rural America may challenge us well beyond our HR departments. In some cases, it may mean adapting the culture of our cooperative or working to make the communities we serve more attractive places to live.

Issue # 4—Governance

Governance should be treated the same way we look at safety. As with safety, you’re never “done” with governance. Your membership is changing continually, and there are always new ideas and different ways to reflect and represent their views. The recently released Governance Task Force Report on cooperative.com is one of many great resources to use as a start.

I firmly believe that how we manage the challenges of the next 10 years will determine what we look like for the 75 years after that. My advice is to open your mind and be willing to change. Creative problem-solving and hard work is our legacy, but it’s also the key to our future.

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