United REMC still lighting the way for rural residents

REMC employee Felix Vanner installs a new pole and transformer at a residence on West Maple Grove Road on Thursday, Jan. 14. The removal of a rotten pole and installation of the transformer was part of REMC’s improvement efforts.
REMC employee Felix Vanner installs a new pole and transformer at a residence on West Maple Grove Road on Thursday, Jan. 14. The removal of a rotten pole and installation of the transformer was part of REMC’s improvement efforts. Photo by Andre B. Laird.

Originally published Jan. 18, 2010.

Not more than 75 years ago, rural Huntington County was dark.

Farmers and others residing in the countryside were missed by the growing power grid that lighted towns throughout the county.

Then in 1936, then-President Franklin Roosevelt signed into law the Rural Electrification Act of 1936, part of the president's "Second New Deal" program, designed to bring electricity to rural areas all across the United States.

Huntington County was no exception.

The county was much more rural at the time, with farms much harder to reach with electrical lines from the county's towns, which for the most part already enjoyed in-home electricity provided by larger companies.
Those companies thought it was inefficient cost-wise to build rural power lines, as those lines would require higher voltage and far fewer customers would be served.

The REA was designed to provide funding to construct power lines to rural areas through cooperative electric companies, known as Rural Electric Management Cooperatives (REMCs). These co-ops were, and still are, owned and managed by the residents and businesses to which the REMC provides electricity.

Enter United REMC, formed in 1965 by the merger of Huntington County REMC and the Allen/Wells REMC. United, one of 900 such co-ops still in existence today, provides electricity to rural - or formerly rural - areas of Huntington, Wells and southern Allen counties.
Headquartered in Markle, the company employs 36 local residents, and has seen corporate growth as areas serviced by United see tangible growth.

"For example, the General Motors plant in Allen County used to be nothing but rural farmground," says John Klingenberger, corporate relations manager for United. "But because GM came into our service area, United ended up serving GM."

Klingenberger notes that the boundaries for service coverage were drawn decades ago, before many areas in United's territory were developed.

And while towns in the county are serviced by Duke Energy or Indiana-Michigan Power, nearly all rural areas are powered by United, which adds up to over 1,400 miles of power line, and 12,000 customers - an average of 7.7 customers per mile of wire.

But being owned by the consumers United provides service to -there are no shareholders - is the true difference between REMCs and other energy corporations.

"We pride ourselves the most on the fact that if you have a problem and you want to talk to the head of the company, you can," says Klingenberger.

United is a non-profit company, and the fact that company profits are paid back to consumers is unique to most REMCs.

"Any profits made we call margins," Klingenberger says. "Every year, each of our customers receives a check, known as a ‘capital credit.'"

However, because profits were first used by REMCs to expand and update their grids, capital credits paid in 2009 were based on profits made in 1981.

United REMC obtains its power from the Wabash Valley Power Association, which contracts with major energy corporations to provide electricity to REMCs across Indiana.

The relationship United has with the WVPA illustrates the interconnectedness of REMCs throughout the state and the country.

After Hurricane Katrina, United sent several crews and trucks to assist REMCs in Mississippi in restoring power to their grid. And in the aftermath of the December 2008 ice storm, REMCs in neighboring counties assists United with restoring power in United's service area.

"We do our part to help other REMCs because someday it will be our turn in the barrel," says Klingenberger.

In 1998, numerous REMCs across the country founded the Touchstone Energy Cooperative, of which United is a part. Touchstone allows REMCs to have a bigger voice in energy conversations, especially in the political spectrum to represent the smaller companies among large energy corporations. Most REMCs in the U.S. are part of Touchstone, giving REMCs a familiar name across the country.

United is also a member of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association and the Indiana Statewide Association of REMCs.

As for community involvement, Klingenberger notes that the majority of United's employees and board of directors are committed to community involvement, with many of those individuals doing everything from volunteering in churches and charities to coaching Little League.

"We're a homegrown company. We try to be involved in the community as much as we can," Klingenberger says.

At the corporate level, United has sponsored numerous charities and events, notably the annual 4-H Fair (which REMCs typically support due to their rural nature), and hosts field trips to educate students about electricity. United also has a unique program called "Operation Round-Up," which has helped numerous causes in the three counties United covers.

Operation Round-Up allows customers to round their electricity bill to the nearest whole dollar. For example, a $50.75 bill could be rounded to $51, and the additional 25 cents would be placed into the Operation Round-Up account at United. Through this program between $30,000 and $35,000 is raised annually, and over $65,000 in grants have been awarded to individuals and organizations in United's service territory.

Organizations and individuals may apply for a grant, and a separate board of directors is nominated by the United board to review applications and award the grants.

As for the future, United REMC expects to see more growth, as rural areas in United's service territory continue to develop and expand.

"REMCs have see steady growth because areas around towns have grown," says Klingenberger.

United has also taken a stance on energy conservation. The WVPA obtains about five percent of its energy from renewable sources, which Klingenberger notes is a "pretty high percentage."

The co-op also offers an energy advisor program, which helps United's customers manage their electric bills by increasing energy efficiency and conservation. United has also previously offered energy efficiency rebates to customers who install energy efficient electric home heating appliances.

United is also improving service to its customers through the installation of its new "smart meters."

The system involves the electric meter on each home or business sending a signal through the power lines back to Markle of the location's usage each hour. Through the system, the need for human meter readers is eliminated. So far, nearly 10,000 of the meters have been installed, with about 300 installations left to go, says Mike Kelsey, United's assistant operations manager.

The system also allows United to track outages electronically, thereby improving response times in an outage. Residents can check United's up-to-date outage map online at www.unitedremc.com.

"This is something we've been working on for three to four years," says United CEO Kevin Quickery. "It makes us more efficient."

But truly the gem of United REMC is the service it provides to its customers.

"We're driven by Main Street, not Wall Street," says Quickery.

Klingenberger agrees.

"We're very proud of the way we're able to maintain the system, keep rates competitive and provide good service," he says.