By Elena Olmstead for TCAJoB
It’s been 75 years since the Benton Rural Electric Association, or Benton REA, was formed, bringing electricity to rural farms across Benton and Yakima counties. And the consumer-owned utility is rooted in American history.
During the Great Depression, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the New Deal, which created the Rural Electrification Administration. The REA was charged with lending money to rural electric associations to help bring electricity to the country’s rural areas.
Troy Berglund, Benton REA’s communications and marketing coordinator, said within two years, Benton REA was incorporated. And nearly a year after its formation, the utility was ready to flip the switch, electrify its lines and bring power to 89 farms throughout Benton and Yakima counties.
A lot has changed in the past 75 years. For example, instead of serving fewer than 90 farms across two counties, Benton REA now has more than 10,000 members with more than 13,000 accounts. It provides electrical service from the Tri-Cities to as far west as White Pass.
And all of these changes have been possible thanks to advances in technology.
Berglund said when the REA was first established, the early technology couldn’t provide reliable service. Strong winds could cause outages and, because everything was done by hand, it could take some time for power to be restored after an outage.
But, back then, people didn’t necessarily rely on electricity. There were fewer electrically-powered appliances and businesses didn’t rely on electricity to get the job done.
Throughout the history of Benton REA, technological advancements seem to keep coming every day. In Benton REA’s early years, power poles were erected by hand and workers had to climbed the poles by hand to work on them. Later the invention and adoption of the bucket truck made that much easier.
And now advances far beyond the hydraulic lift of a bucket truck has made it easier and safer for the utility to return power after an outage.
Benton REA has strategically placed remote controlled substations throughout its service area, allowing power systems to be managed from a central control center.
“Initially people were excited to have power,” Berglund said. “Nowadays our reliability has to be high to meet customers’ demand.”
Benton REA has actually been nationally ranked for a number of years as one of the co-ops with the least amount of outages per customer, making it one of the most reliable utilities in the country.
Over the years, Benton REA has not only continued to expand its service area and improve reliability, the utility has also expanded its service beyond the electrical grid. Berglund said the utility offers conservation programs, helps customers utilize renewable energy and offer internet service through PowerNet.
Berglund said the new programs were implemented because they were services customers felt they needed.
“Our customers said we would love it if you could provide that service for us,” Berglund said.
Berglund said there are several things that make Benton REA unique. It is one of the only organizations that will return money to its members at the end of the fiscal year.
“We’re not-for-profit,” Berglund said.
So if there is a profit at the end of the year, that money is divided among all of the REA members.
Benton REA has also created a scholarship program using money that cannot be returned to members. The program, for graduating high school seniors, awards up to five $8,000 scholarships for students going to both trade and technical schools and universities. Any student who receives electricity from Benton REA is eligible to apply.
And while Benton REA has a rich history, its leaders don’t dwell on the past — they are too busy preparing for the future.
Berglund said the organization will continue to invest in additional services for its members and work to maintain stable rates going forward. He said Benton REA has had only one rate increase in the last 20 years and one rate decrease in the same time frame.
Benton REA will celebrate its 75th anniversary throughout 2012 with several different events, which included its annual meeting in February, where the utility they gave away a surplus vehicle, bill credits and other prizes.
Over the past 75 years Benton REA has seen a lot of change, but one thing that has not changed is the organization’s commitment to its members.
“We continue to focus on our members first,” Berglund said.