The past should not control the future, but it can certainly be a useful guide. Electric cooperatives first transformed the lives of millions of rural Americans in the '30s and '40s by bringing electricity into homes and businesses. Electrification improved quality of life by increasing economic productivity and eliminating household drudgery. The co-ops empowered rural communities to become prosperous engines of economic growth and empowered rural Americans so that they would not only subsist but thrive.
Fast forward to today: The mission of empowering communities and consumers remains. As the electric utility sector evolves, co-ops continue to empower consumers by providing reliable, affordable, safe, and environmentally responsible power. Increasingly, consumers are interested in controlling their energy use, producing their own energy, and becoming active participants in the electricity network. At the same time, falling prices for solar, wind and new technologies like battery storage are making new options available for cooperatives and consumers alike.
It is impossible to know exactly how technologies will develop, what the various market constructs will look like, or what the future generally holds. Nor can we dictate the evolution of our industry. We can simply create the environment in which that evolution can take place. We do this by acknowledging consumer preferences, understanding system and regional variations, and respecting the diversity of our membership. Simply put, electric cooperatives take a bottom-up approach and strictly adhere to a consumer-centric utility model that prioritizes local solutions. One size does not fit all. What works in rural Montana does not necessarily work in central Florida.
The consumer-centric utility is a proven model that will lead co-ops into the future. Co-ops will continue providing safe, affordable and reliable electric service while offering new and expanded products and services to consumers. Because of the focus on the consumer and the community, there is a motivation to innovate and improve on existing service.
The types of services and products that co-ops will offer will vary depending on specific consumer preferences and system characteristics. Some co-ops today have started to provide broadband access to consumers in areas without current access, developing a platform to enable further technology integration. In many areas, co-ops offer community solar, on-bill financing for energy efficiency upgrades, smart-thermostat-enabled demand response programs, and many other programs. The type and quantity of services offered will continue to expand based on local considerations, in line with the goal of enhancing safety, reliability and affordability.
In the future, it will be essential for a utility to be able to manage its system in ways that make sense for that particular utility and its consumers. The retail consumer must come first. Regulatory systems and market structures must allow cooperatives and other utilities the flexibility to make local decisions on behalf of their consumers in light of local conditions and those consumers' preferences.