System improvements, director retirements and a core cooperative principle thriving in today’s rural communities headlined Southwestern Electric’s 80th Annual Meeting of Members, held Saturday, Sept. 8, at Greenville Junior High School in Greenville, Ill. More than 1,600 people from Southwestern Illinois attended the meeting, which included breakfast, health screenings, activities for kids, and the co-op’s business meeting and election of directors.
Bobby Williams, CEO of Southwestern Electric, outlined a number of system improvements that will benefit members across the co-op’s service area. “Right now, you own 3,500 miles of power line and 23 substations. A year from now you’ll own more,” Williams said, addressing a packed gym.
Near the Effingham-Fayette County Line, Southwestern crews installed a new transformer and support structures at the co-op’s Altamont Substation to meet the power requirements of Pinnacle Foods, in St. Elmo. “Pinnacle is a significant contributor to our area economy,” Williams said. “The Altamont Substation expansion ensures quality power for Pinnacle’s Fayette County facility, which is growing, as well as co-op members in Fayette and Effingham counties.”
In Fayette County, the co-op is building a new substation north of the I-70 interchange at Vandalia. “By building Vandalia Substation near the city’s commercial district, we’re making local businesses and residential members less vulnerable to lightning and other environmental intrusions that affect reliability,” Williams said, adding that construction will begin later this year.
In Bond County, the co-op plans to build a new substation outside Smithboro. It will be larger than the co-op’s existing Smithboro Substation, accommodate member growth, and enable co-op crews to reduce outage times during significant weather events. Williams said his team expects to have the new facility online by 2023.
In Madison County, Southwestern purchased ground to build a new substation near the interchange at I-270 and I-55/70. “Maple Grove Substation will provide power to thousands of members in the I-55 corridor from Troy to Edwardsville,” said Williams. “The new substation will allow us to reroute power and restore service quickly during transmission line outages or damage from severe storms.” Maple Grove Substation will come online in 2020.
Williams said as of September 2018, Southwestern Electric members had connected 67 private solar projects to the co-op’s distribution system. “That’s more than a megawatt of independently generated, renewable energy. If plans for additional private projects move forward, we’ll be approaching two megawatts of renewable energy interconnections by the end of 2019. Our approach to renewable energy considers the contributions of each of you individually, and the needs of our membership as a whole,” he explained.
“As a not-for-profit cooperative, we’re responsible for looking after the interests of 24,000 members. The pieces we’re adding to our system ensure reliability, reduce the duration of outages, and position us to meet your energy needs today and in the future,” Williams said. “Southwestern is a service organization. Our work says more than our words. Be mindful of our work in the weeks and months to come. Then share your impressions with us. Whatever you have to say, we can use it to improve.”
A Spirit of Service
Ann Schwarm, president of Southwestern Electric, said the cooperative had taken significant strides, solidifying power contracts and a new management team since the members last met. “Last year at this time, we had just signed a new energy deal, we were in the process of negotiating a capacity contract, and we announced changes in management—a new CEO and new CFO,” she said.
Schwarm characterized Southwestern CFO Becky Jacobson as a highly skilled accountant, chief financial officer and leader. “Bobby Williams, Southwestern’s CEO, has a rare mix of professional experience, education and leadership traits. He is a data-driven decision maker and we, as the board of directors, appreciate that when he brings a recommendation to the board it is backed up with the information we need to make an informed decision,” she said.
“Of the 24 co-ops in this state, your rates rank among the lowest five,” Schwarm told members. “It was true last year. It’s true this year. And to the best of my knowledge, it will be true next year as well. We are committed to doing what it takes to keep the lights on. Our track record of exceptional reliability also is a plus for our economic development efforts.”
Schwarm noted that while the co-op was firmly grounded in the present, the organization’s 80th anniversary was an appropriate occasion to recognize the rural electric pioneers who stepped forward to serve as Southwestern’s first board of directors. “They provided us with an enduring legacy that allows us to live here, work here and build our businesses here. They were neighbors helping neighbors. To them we owe a debt of gratitude.”
Schwarm said gratitude and neighbors helping neighbors were two concepts that developed deeper meaning this year when she and her husband survived a tornado that destroyed their home. “Within an hour, more than 50 people flooded our home to offer support with both words and actions,” she said. “They returned for days and weeks following that fateful night to help with the cleanup. Among them were many fellow Southwestern members. Gratitude and an overwhelming sense of euphoria at being alive were what we experienced. Gratitude to the friends and neighbors who put into action what our founders did 80 years ago—neighbors helping neighbors,” she said.
“I’m here to personally testify that service is the heart of our communities and that service is still the core of this cooperative. To do for and with each other, that which we cannot do alone—it’s that resolve which built this co-op, kept it going for 80 years and which will carry it into the future.”
Southwestern Electric members honored two longtime directors who retired from the board this year. “Ron Schaufelberger brought a steadfast, member-first focus to Southwestern’s board meetings for 42 years,” Schwarm said. “Deliberate discussion and a commitment to building consensus have been the hallmarks of his service since he was first elected in 1976. While his presence will be sorely missed, his influence will be felt for years to come,” she said.
“Alan Libbra ends his Southwestern board service after 36 years, 30 of which he served as president. Alan’s commitment to improving the quality of life for the people of Southwestern Illinois was a driving force behind his leadership efforts. His mission set the stage for three decades of cooperative accomplishment. It was Alan’s fire-in-the-belly commitment that moved Southwestern forward through some of the most challenging, formative and fruitful years of the co-op’s history.”
Schaufelberger said he initially ran for a seat on the board when he felt called to contribute to the cooperative. “There were things I thought needed to be done, and I thought I could contribute to getting those things done. We had a lot of tough times. I spent a lot of sleepless nights deliberating over the decisions we had to make. It’s something that you don’t take lightly,” he said. “I’m really pleased with the employees that we have now, and with the board of directors that we have. I think we’ve got a lot of good things that are going to happen in the future.” He closed by thanking directors past and present, and the membership that had entrusted him with acting as their voice for four decades.
Alan Libbra told the crowd that he came to the board 36 years ago without having “the foggiest notion about what it took to run an electric co-op. The one thing I did know was that the idea of what a cooperative could and should be appealed to me,” he said. “One of my favorite quotes was from Lincoln. He said government is people doing together what they cannot do for themselves. Electric co-ops, because of their history and mission seemed to epitomize the essence of that thought—and I loved that thought,” he said.
“By the end of my first term the Clinton power plant came on line, and by the end of my second term, our wholesale rates had almost tripled. Our rates jumped 60 percent and our financial situation was precarious. On behalf of the board, I asked you for time to fix this. You gave us the time, and we did find the solution,” Libbra recalled.
“Fast forward 30 years. Our finances are strong. Our reliability is good and getting better. Our rates are very near the bottom of Illinois co-ops and will remain stable. The only thing that hasn’t changed is my love affair with the idea of a cooperative. If all of us maintain our commitment to the common good, if we believe we can help ourselves by helping each other, if we never quit trying to reach that ideal, we may never quite grab the brass ring—but we can come awfully close.”
Following the president’s address, members received election results. Southwestern Electric members elected one member from each of the cooperative’s three voting districts to serve on the co-op’s board of directors.
From District I, William “Bill” Jennings of Alhambra defeated Marvin Warner of Pocahontas and Paul Falbe of Maryville. Jennings received 480 votes, Warner received 442 votes, and Falbe received 207 votes.
From District II, Jerry Gaffner defeated Rodney Reavis, with Gaffner receiving 548 votes and Reavis 489 votes. Both candidates were from Greenville.
From District III, incumbent Randy Wolf of St. Elmo defeated challenger Stanley Kuhns of Mason. Wolf received 796 votes and Kuhns received 291 votes.
Each director will serve a three-year term on the board.