Wiring communities together
In 1935, cities across the country had been enjoying the revolutionary conveniences of electricity for more than 50 years, yet rural America was still being powered by the hard work of farmers and their wives. While their urban counterparts were feeling the freedom of the spin cycle and storing food in refrigerators, farm wives were canning the harvest and building fires to heat the water that would be used to scrub clothes by hand.
It was around this time that Franklin Roosevelt recognized the need to bring rural America into the modern age in order to spur the economy forward. An executive order establishing the Rural Electrification Administration, and the subsequent legislation establishing the SC Rural Electrification Authority, paved the way for farmers to come together and apply for loans to fund the infrastructure needed to bring power to the pastures.
Extension agents began canvassing the countryside in search of people willing to pay the $5 membership fee – no small sum in Depression-era dollars – and the electrical cooperative was born. By 1940 the membership across South Carolina had grown too vast to be managed from Columbia and the state was divided into districts, prompting the formation of Blue Ridge Electric Cooperative in August of that year.
Today Blue Ridge Electric Cooperative is the fourth largest of the 20 co-ops in South Carolina, serving close to 64,000 members across five counties. The company headquarters in the heart of downtown Pickens serves Pickens, Greenville and Spartanburg counties, while a companion facility located between Seneca and Westminster distributes power to Oconee and Anderson counties.
Blue Ridge is a member-owned utility that operates as a not-for-profit. President and CEO Charles Dalton is quick to point out, however, that the cooperative does business and pays taxes just as any for-profit company would, with the exception of income taxes; income is assigned to be paid back to members in the form of capital credits, which are typically paid out on a 20-year cycle.
“We refer to our customers as members,” Dalton says. “It’s a term that reminds us how important each of our members are, and drives us to provide a high level of service.”
The Blue Ridge philosophy of service extends beyond powering the homes and businesses of its members.
“We have a strong sense that we need to support the communities we serve in,” Dalton says, explaining the motivation behind Blue Ridge Fest, an annual festival centered on classic cars and classic beach music that over the last 18 years has distributed more than $2 million to charities within the five counties that make up the cooperative’s service area. “Our employees see so many hard situations in doing their jobs day to day, so we pick charities we know are doing a good job helping people who really need help.”
This sense of community is not surprising, considering Blue Ridge Electric Cooperative was built by communities for the purpose of building up those communities. Many current employees have direct connections to the cooperative’s founders.
“We have employees who will retire with 30 or 40 years of experience, and with parents, aunts and uncles who worked here,” Dalton says. “These family connections and traditions are probably true in co-ops, not just in South Carolina, but throughout the country.”
Dalton himself is carrying on a family legacy; his great-uncle was one of the co-op’s founding members. After graduating from Clemson University in 1964, Dalton and his brother owned a furniture store that drew its power from Blue Ridge Electric, and when his great-uncle died, Dalton assumed his seat on the cooperative’s board. He held this position for 10 years until he was appointed to replace the original general manager, A.J. Hurt, upon his retirement in 1982.
“Blue Ridge Electric is something I was always interested in and something that was important to my family,” Dalton says.
The cooperative was granted a fairly large geographic area when legislation was passed in the late 1960s seeking to avoid duplication of service by divvying up territories between co-ops and investor-owned utilities. Where the larger utilities (such as Duke Energy) may average 25-30 customers per mile, Blue Ridge averages 10. This translates to lots of room to fill in with residential and commercial development.
“We are well positioned to grow,” Dalton affirms. “We have the infrastructure to serve any additional load we could get.”
Blue Ridge is a player in helping to attract that additional load, thanks to the Rural Development Act, a 1996 statute approved by the S.C. General Assembly allowing taxpaying utilities to defer up to $300,000 in annual license-tax obligations for investment in local job-creating projects. In 2012 that annual sum was increased to $400,000. Blue Ridge has directed a substantial portion of these dollars to support land purchases, water, sewer and roadwork, and construction of shell buildings to aid in the development of commerce and industrial parks in Pickens, Oconee and Anderson counties.