This week Marlboro Electric Cooperative announced that they are leaving the Electric Cooperatives of South Carolina (ECSC) which is the trade association established to represent the interests of all 20 statewide cooperatives. Marlboro Electric Cooperative serves Marlboro and Dillon counties. I decided to learn a little bit about the South Carolina electric cooperatives (“co-ops” in general. There are 20 co-ops in South Carolina and they serve in every one of the 46 counties and serve roughly 1.5 million South Carolinians).
Each co-op has their own board and own website which can be found through the ECSC site: http://www.ecsc.org/. Berkeley Electric Cooperative is the largest. Most of the co-ops obtain their power from Santee Cooper, who generates it and transmits it to Central Electric Cooperative (also known as Central). Santee Cooper does not have direct contracts with each of the co-ops, but rather has one big contract with Central, who buys the power from Santee Cooper and then transmits it to the other co-ops. Central then has different contracts, one with each of the co-ops. Thus, Central gets the power from Santee Cooper, and transmits it to the co-op, who distributes it to their individual residential and commercial customers throughout the state.
The Marlboro co-op move brings up many questions. Why are they leaving after decades of being together? Does one co-op leaving the group reveal an internal fracturing of the group? Will Marlboro Electric Cooperative be the only one to leave? Do all the co-ops still present a united front? If not, does that impact their ability to negotiate? Does it mute their voice in important decisions facing South Carolina?
The contract between Central and Santee Cooper runs through to 2058. In total Central represents about 60% of Santee Cooper’s revenues, so by far they are the largest customer.
There are five upstate co-ops which recently broke away from Santee Cooper and are now buying their power from Duke Energy. However,those five are still part of the Central system and the ECSC.
The Electric Cooperatives of South Carolina is the marketing, lobbying and economic development arm of the co-ops. They are highly influential and have tremendous political tie ins. In fact, they coordinate with all the co-ops to lobby almost every day at the Statehouse, and they are the largest political action committee in South Carolina.
The relationship between Santee Cooper and the co-ops goes back decades, sometimes a strong and positive relationship and other times a tense one. The co-ops have expressed interest in buying parts or all of Santee Cooper. I wonder where that will lead. Right now, the co-ops have sued Santee Cooper in hopes that they will not have to pay for the nuclear debt.
Why does all this matter? Because many of the state’s residents are co-op customers. Do they realize they are currently on the hook for the $9 billion nuclear mess? Co-op customers largely live in rural areas of the state and many are living on meager means. Thus, cleaning up the financial mess will hit them the most, those least able to afford it.
On a lighter note, I cannot resist smiling at the name. Do you remember the Marlboro Man? An icon in advertising that ran from 1954 to 1999. A symbol of independence. I smile because as an exchange student in England in the 1980’s I visited a travel agent to book a flight home. Standing next to me was an eager traveler excited for his first trip to America. He pointed to the familiar image on a poster behind the agent and announced, “I want to go to Marlboro Country!”
Until this week the only parallel I might have drawn between Marlboro Electric Cooperative and the cigarette brand would be that they both derived their names from the British “Marlborough” name for an English town and the street where Philip Morris offices were located. Today, they also share a renegade attitude.
I don’t have the answers to any of the questions above, yet, but I will keep searching, learning and sharing. Stay tuned