Membership growth, energy efficiency and the potential for electric vehicles to serve rural America while buoying power sales were the marquee messages delivered during Southwestern Electric Cooperative’s 81st Annual Meeting of Members, held Saturday, Sept. 7, at Greenville Junior High School in Greenville, Ill.
More than 1,200 people from Southwestern Illinois attended the meeting, which included live line electrical safety demonstrations, health screenings, activities for kids, and the co-op’s business meeting and election of directors.
“We’re investing in new infrastructure to keep up with member growth, and at the same time, we’re maintaining a system that’s 80 years old,” said Southwestern CEO Bobby Williams, addressing a packed gym. “That maintenance is vital work. It’s also costly. Our membership is growing. Our energy sales are not. So how do we serve a growing membership when our revenue isn’t keeping pace?”
Williams said Southwestern was advocating technology that meets member needs while supporting power sales. “We drive sales by driving change,” he said. “We drive change by educating our region about the advantages of electric vehicles.”
Williams told members more than 1 million electric vehicles (EVs) are on U.S. roads, and the number of EVs in America is expected to double in the next three years. “If you’d told me in 2015 that EVs would be a viable, growing market in 2019, I wouldn’t have believed you. Today, I’m a believer. Prices continue to fall as more models come to market. And the cost to operate an EV is significantly less than what you’d pay for a comparable gas-engine automobile.”
According to the U.S. Department of Energy, as of Aug. 31, the average price for a gallon of gas in Illinois was $2.50. The average cost of fueling a comparable vehicle with electricity was $1.20 per eGallon. “Factor in fuel savings and the cost of replacement parts you can forego with an electric car—then consider the extended life of braking systems in electric automobiles,” he added, “and you can see how EV ownership savings add up.”
Williams said if 1 percent of the membership drove EVs, it would increase power sales enough to provide members with thousands of new poles, miles of new steel-reinforced power line, and new technology to improve system performance. “Because you’ll charge that car at home, and you’ll still be money ahead, since the cost of an eGallon—which includes the power you used to recharge your battery—is less than half what you’re paying at the pump.”
With EVs covering up to 300 miles on an overnight charge, many Southwestern members could drive to work and home again, several times, between charges, Williams said. “If you’re on the road and running low on charge, there are about 22,000 charging stations in the U.S. We have more charging stations in this country than we have Starbucks or McDonalds. And that number is growing weekly.”
Locally, Edwardsville and Effingham are already home to public EV charging stations, Williams noted. “We’re exploring opportunities to partner with communities along I-70 to support the development of additional eStations, making Southwestern Electric’s service area an EV-advantaged zone.
“In years to come, you’ll have a choice. You can pay at the pump and support petroleum companies, or pay at the plug and invest in your local cooperative, which invests in you,” he said. “Each time you charge your EV at home, you’re investing in infrastructure that provides safe, reliable power for your home, business, and your cooperative community.”
Ann Schwarm, president of Southwestern Electric, expanded on the theme, telling members that from 2009 to 2018 the cooperative’s membership grew from 21,598 members to 23,215 members, an increase of 7.5 percent. Conversely, the co-op’s power sales remained flat during that period.
“Everything from LEDs, to solar panels, to energy-efficient appliances, to more effective insulation, windows, and heating and cooling systems in new builds, to conscientious energy conservation has impacted the use of electricity,” Schwarm said. “Southwestern is focused on delivering reliable, affordable electricity but we are not locked in to only the traditional ways of doing so.”
Schwarm pointed out that early iterations of EV technology didn’t offer the range of today’s vehicles, and that the price gap between combustion engine automobiles and electric vehicles will continue to close as market competition among manufacturers grows.
“Electric vehicles needing power to continue their journeys are passing through our territory every day,” she said, noting that Interstate 70 runs the length of Southwestern’s service area, and that the co-op is bracketed by Interstates 55 and 57. “Southwestern CEO Bobby Williams and other members of our staff are working to establish opportunities to sell power to these travelers.
“As electric vehicles become more widely available and the purchase price continues to fall, more of our members will become EV owners and charge their vehicles at home. What does this mean for you if you never plan to own and use an electric vehicle? As a member, you will benefit because electricity sales will increase, and the cooperative will invest that revenue in infrastructure that serves you, your family, and your friends and neighbors,” Schwarm said.
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, incumbent Sandy Grapperhaus of Collinsville defeated challengers James Ryan Morris of St. Jacob and Chris Burcham of Edwardsville. Grapperhaus received 918 votes, Morris received 138 votes and 127 votes were cast for Burcham.
From District II, incumbent Ted Willman of Greenville defeated challenger Roger Thiems of Sorento. Willman received 802 votes, while 420 members cast votes for Thiems. Ann Schwarm, an incumbent from District III who resides in Loogootee, ran unopposed and was elected by acclamation.
Each director will serve a three-year term on the board.
Based in Greenville, Ill., Southwestern Electric is a not-for-profit, member-owned cooperative serving 23,000 residential, commercial, agricultural and industrial members in 11 counties along the I-70 corridor between St. Louis, Mo., and Effingham, Ill.