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Electricity Goes to the Country

Morris Llewellyn Cooke

Administrator, Rural Electrification Authority

September 1936

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IN the next three years the Georgia Power Company plans to spend more than $4 million to bring the modern advantages of electricity—light, power, heat—to some 15,000 farms in the area it serves. Using its own resources, the company will build 3000 miles of new distribution lines, of which 1026 miles serving 2500 customers are to be completed this year. It is estimated that the three-year plan means at least 5000 refrigerators, 15OO electric ranges, 6000 radios, 750 electric water heaters, as well as the safety and convenience of electric lighting and modern plumbing on thousands of southern farms. The company is extending its service to less thickly settled areas, as well as to the more profitable sections. Further, it has announced that it seeks to work with, not against, local groups which aim to provide complementary service through farm cooperatives or other organizations. Preston S. Arkwright, president of the Georgia Power Company, recently stated:
This company will not oppose such associations seeking to build lines in areas where we are financially unable to order our own service to farmers, but, on the contrary, we will assist them in every way we can. Instead of refusing to sell them electricity to operate their cooperatively owned lines, we have already filed with the Georgia Public Service Commission a rate schedule under which we will sell electricity to the cooperatives at a wholesale price for resale to their members. This schedule is almost identical with the rate applicable to municipalities buying corresponding amounts of power.

Even allowing for a factor of salesmanship in this, perhaps only those who have closely followed the development of the power industry in this country realize what a right-about-face in attitude and in practice such a rural electrification project by a privately owned power company represents. To show how it has come about, it is necessary to sketch in the background of the present scene. Though rural power uses of electricity began thirty-five years ago on an irrigated farm in California, the 1930 Census showed that only one tenth of American farms had central station service.

One of the barriers to the development of farm electrification has been the rural line extension policy of many of the utilities. The power company has persisted in regarding the farmer not as a potential power customer, but as a small domestic consumer. Rates for domestic consumption have been notoriously high. Large industrial consumers have been able to set up their own plants if power companies refused it; give them favorable wholesale rates, and since the utilities needed the volume of industrial business, large consumers have rarely had ditficulty in obtainillg equitable rates. But the householder, who cannot economically generate his own energy, has had to pay what was asked or do without electricity. Generally, in the cities, he preferred to pay, often at rates so high that they limited his use of electricity to lighting. A lamp advertisement in 1927 asserted that while only 21 percent of the energy generated the preceding year was used for lighting, this form of consumption nevertheless had provided 64 percent of the industry's revenues!

In addition to paying for the energy he used, the farmer was expected to advance to the power company most or all of the costs of construction. Since utility company ideas as to what constituted solid rural lines have been rather fancy, such costs were prohibitive for most farmers. A convention of the old National Electric Light Association agreed that rural service was practicable only when lines were being extended from one well settled community to another and farms could be picked up incidentally enroute. In effect this meant that scores of counties classed by our Census as 100 percent rural could never hope to enjoy the advantages of electricity.

Here we have one of the factors responsible for the uneven progress of industry and agriculture. Compare with the factory, the farm has suffered from antiquated machinery and outmoded techniques. A limited and inferior standard of living has been the farmer's reward for years of backbreaking toil. The promise of continued drudgery and the absence of modern comforts have helped drive from the farm to the city those who were most free to travel but who were at the same time most needed in rural communities—the young people. To correct, at least in part, the unbalance between rural and city life, like many another worthy cause, meant a lot of uphill work. Yet all of us who studied the problem believed that an opening inevitably would come for a serious, well-ordered effort to extend to the farm the benefits electricity has made possible to town dwellers in this country and to both urban and rural families in many other lands.

Such an opening came through the Emergency Relief Act of 1935. With the problem of unemployment still acute and the position of agriculture and industry impaired, rural electrification offered projects which would at once provide jobs, stimulate manufacturing, and aid the farmer. Accordingly the Congress earmarked a substantial sum for this work, and the President, by an executive order dated May 11, 1935, created the Rural Electrification Administration. A year later, the Congress passed the Norris-Rayburn Act, the purpose of which is to insure a ten-year integrated program for electrifying American farms. To that end, it authorizes appropriations of $410 million. Essentially the REA is a financing agency. A large part of its work, both as an emergency agency and as all agency charged with responsibility for a long-term plan, consists in allocating funds for the construction of rural lines. These funds are not grants, but loans, made to private companies, to public agencies or to cooperatives, to be repaid within twenty-five years, with interest computed at approximately the prevailing rate for government obligations.

The details of the ten-year program will be better understood if we glance back over the accomplishments of the experimental year as an emergency bureau. First, the fundamentals of a technique for evaluating projects have been evolved. Second, over one hundred rural electrification projects have been approved, embracing 13,200 miles of rural distribution lines to serve 53,000 customers in thirty-two states. Some of these lines are already energized and many others are under construction. Third, suggested specifications for economical rural line construction have been prepared and distributed by REA engineers. A campaign for improving farm life through greater utilization of electricity has been undertaken. New groups desiring to set up cooperatives have been given legal and technical assistance. Last, but most important, REA has helped modify the whole outlook for rural electrification.

To the utilities, REA has shown that there is a mine of hidden profit in rural electrification if they will operate on a cornprehensive scale. The scheme of the Georgia Power Company has already been cited. Similarly, three New York companies plan to construct over 7000 miles of rural lines in that state. The Electrical World recently estimated that 20,282 miles of new rural lines were built during 1935, and that the current year would add more than 35,000 miles. To farmers throughout the country, REA has been a rallying point where their need of electricity might be effectively voiced, as the large proportion of farmer-initiated comparative projects amply demonstates.


Kay Davis, University of Virginia, © 2001-2003