An early voting option offered by Southwestern Electric Cooperative brought 2,595 members to the polls in recent weeks, marking the strongest turnout for a director election in the organization’s 83-year history.
In April, the cooperative’s board of directors opted to reinstitute health and safety measures implemented in 2020 to encourage early voting and curb the spread of COVID-19. Southwestern Electric members earned a $50 bill credit by voting during the two weeks preceding the organization’s annual membership meeting. Members cast their ballots at drive-through polling stations the cooperative offered at its offices in Greenville, St. Jacob and St. Elmo.
“Prior to 2020, the co-op’s highest voter turnout was in 2017, when 1,451 members cast votes in the co-op election,” said Ann Schwarm, president of Southwestern Electric. “That means at least 1,144 more members participated in the governance of this cooperative by casting their votes for directors. That’s member engagement.”
Schwarm shared the statistics with a dozen members who attended Southwestern Electric Cooperative’s 83rd Annual Meeting of Members, held Saturday, Sept. 11, at the Bond County Fairgrounds in Greenville.
She also announced a membership-wide rate adjustment. Schwarm told members the board of director’s strategic plan called for a cost of service study, which was completed in late 2019. The study examined the cooperative’s rate structure and costs associated with providing safe, reliable energy to the homes, businesses and industries served by Southwestern. “The study made two points clear,” Schwarm said. “First, our fixed charges aren’t covering our investment in materials, such as poles, transformers and power lines. And second, we can fine tune our rates to more accurately reflect the costs to serve residential, commercial, and industrial members.”
Schwarm said the infrastructure requirements and energy demands of residential, commercial and industrial accounts vary widely from one another. “Next year, we’re adjusting our rates and fixed charges to reflect those differences,” she said, noting the rate adjustment will be revenue neutral, meaning the cooperative is not increasing or decreasing the revenue it receives from the membership overall.
Most residential members will see a small drop in their bill after the adjustment, she said. “Residential accounts on our standard rate using less than 887 kilowatt-hours each month will pay a little more. Residential members using more than 887 kilowatt-hours each month will pay a little less,” she said. “To give that context, last year, our average residential member used 1,162 kilowatt-hours per month.”
More precise data gathered by the co-op’s intelligent electronic devices made the rate adjustment possible, Schwarm said. “We are in a better position to make sure what you pay for service is an accurate reflection of what it costs to serve you,” she added.
The rate adjustment and changes in fixed charges will become effective Jan. 1, 2022. They will appear on the February 2022 bill. “These changes will be presented in such a way that you can see them,” she said. “Early next year, we are going to provide you with a more detailed, informative bill. It will break out our cost of service, line by line. At a glance, you’ll be able to see how much you pay for energy, distribution, transmission, and other expenses associated with moving electricity from the grid to your home.”
Bobby Williams, CEO of Southwestern Electric Cooperative, offered members an overview of infrastructure improvements—past, present and future. “In the last five years we have built two new substations, one in Madison County and one in Fayette, to accommodate our residential and commercial growth. They will allow us to balance energy demands on our system and enable us to perform vital maintenance on surrounding substations without interrupting power to the members they serve,” he said.
“In Madison County, we installed new diagnostic and protection technology in our New Douglas Substation and made improvements to our Bethalto Substation. In Bond County, we expanded our Hookdale Substation and upgraded our substation at Reno, installing new technology to help us diagnose mechanical issues and troubleshoot outages. And in the eastern portion of our territory, we upgraded our Edgewood, Confidence and Altamont Substations, installed 17,000 feet of high-performance line outside Beecher City, made significant upgrades to Freedom Power Station, and constructed a new communications tower at our St. Elmo facility,” Williams said.
“In the midst of making major improvements, we continued to install new services, exchange old poles and power lines for new, and maintain the 3,500 miles of overhead and underground line that serve you,” he added.
Williams noted that Southwestern launched a residential EV program in fall of 2020, offering free chargers to members who shared their charging data. “We also partnered with the city of Troy, the Troy, Maryville, St. Jacob and Marine regional chamber of commerce, and Holiday Inn Express Troy, to install two new EV charging stations near Exit 18 off I-55/70. These public charging stations are drawing travelers off the interstate and bringing commerce into our co-op communities,” he said.
This summer, Southwestern partnered with Anderson Hospital to install four new EV charging stations at the hospital’s Maryville campus. In coming months, the cooperative plans to install five additional charging stations at Anderson Hospital’s new Edwardsville campus on Goshen Road.
Southwestern will also begin building five miles of transmission line near Troy in early fall, Williams said. The line will connect the cooperative’s Maple Grove, Edwardsville and Fruit substations, enabling operations and engineering personnel to reroute power and restore service quickly during a transmission outage or storm.
In 2023, the co-op will build a new, larger substation outside Smithboro. “Our Smithboro Substation will accommodate member growth and enable crews to reduce outage times to hundreds of members in Bond and Fayette counties,” Williams said.
“Perhaps the most ambitious part of our plan involves assessing and addressing aging distribution lines,” said Williams. “Over the next five years, we’ll make a system-wide push to replace hundreds of miles of old copper line with new steel-reinforced aluminum conductor. The new conductor will better withstand storms and deliver power more efficiently and effectively than our existing copper line. Ultimately, that translates into time and money saved and fewer outages.”
Williams said the cooperative’s blueprint for the future resembles a road map. “The map is not the terrain,” he noted. “If we find that the course has changed, that the energy landscape has changed, or that you have changed, we’ll replot our path with our goals, our objectives, and you, our members, in mind.”
Following addresses by Schwarm and Williams, members received election results. Southwestern Electric members elected one member from each of the cooperative’s three voting districts to serve on the board of directors.
From District I, incumbent William “Bill” Jennings of Alhambra defeated challenger Phil Hocher of Collinsville. Jennings received 1,791 votes, while 593 members voted for Hocher. From District II, incumbent Jerry Gaffner defeated challenger Bruce Unterbrink. Gaffner received 1,220 votes, while 1,147 members cast ballots for Unterbrink. Both District II candidates were from Greenville. From District III, incumbent Jared Stine of St. Elmo 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 about 24,000 residential, commercial, agricultural and industrial members in 11 counties along the I-70 corridor between St. Louis, Mo., and Effingham, Ill.
PHOTO CAPTION (See Attachment): Three members of Southwestern Electric Cooperative were elected to the co-op’s board of directors during Southwestern Electric’s 83rd Annual Meeting of Members, held Saturday, Sept. 11, at the Bond County Fairgrounds in Greenville, Ill. Pictured are (l-r) William “Bill” Jennings of Alhambra, Jerry Gaffner of Greenville and Jared Stine of St. Elmo. Each director will serve a three-year term on the board.