09 May 2007

Light it Up

Out here in the country, we get our electricity from what's called a "rural electric cooperative." There are many technical ways in which a co-op differs from a municipal or corporate electric utility, but an obvious one is price. We pay much more for electricity here in the country than folks do who live in town --- and that's even after all the private utilities jacked their rates earlier this year.

When we first moved here, I was taken aback at how high our electric bills were. And then I started thinking about it: We live a half mile from the closest main road. There's another house a few hundred yards past us. The next house after that is a mile away. And it's like that everywhere you go out in the country around here. The distance between neighbors is one of the reasons we moved here; we didn't want the noise and crowding of a city or even a small town. HOWEVER, a consequence of low population density is that it takes a lot of wire and a lot of poles to provide service to very few people. As I understand it, the average co-op has seven customers per mile---compared to 47 per mile for municipal utilities. That's a lot of overhead that must be paid for by a small number of customers. No private utility in its right mind would take on that kind of burden, which is why the New Deal created these co-ops as public-private partnerships. As much as it pains me to praise a New Deal program, or to pay these electric rates, I happily write those checks each month for one reason: it sure beats living without electricity.

What's funny is that as time as gone by, I've become increasingly appreciative of our Eastern Illini Electric Cooperative. The power has almost never gone out, and even when it has gone out it's usually been restored very quickly. In the last six years or so, we've never been more than 12 hours or so without power, even when the whole region was hammered by ice storms. When the power does go out and I need to report a problem, my call is not routed to a phone bank in India. It is answered by a local person just down the road in Paxton---sometimes by the head of the field repair department himself (who also happens to be the treasurer of our local Knights of Columbus council). There's nothing quite like reporting a blackout to a friend who replies, "Yeah, Chris, we know about that one and we're going to get it back up right away. Our guys are on their way. But thanks for telling us about it."

The EIEC is on my mind today because one of their white pickup trucks showed up in our driveway this morning. The guy had one of those measuring wheels and was counting the number of feet from the road to our meter. I came out and greeted him, and he explained that later this year they'd be replacing all the poles and wires along our road, and he was collecting the necessary measurements. Nothing wrong with the infrastructure---just replacing it on schedule before it does go bad.

And then the EIEC guy asked a remarkable question: "How did everything turn out with your well?"

"Our well?" I asked.

"Remember this winter when I was out, replacing the surge protector on your water heater, and you were having trouble with the well? How'd that turn out?"

Suddenly, I remembered. Our well had stopped pumping on a bitterly cold day, and we'd feared the worst: a frozen/broken pipe, or a dead pump. At times like that, living in the country makes you feel really isolated and vulnerable. Just by coincidence, this EIEC guy had been at our house checking on the surge protector. He stayed for quite a while, testing our junction boxe and trying to diagnose the problem, but to no avail. It wasn't his job to fix our well, but he'd gone way above and beyond the call of duty just trying. The problem turned out to be at the breaker box, with one of the switches; the EIEC guy hadn't been able to trace it that far, but our local plumber did when he came later that afternoon (again, a great example of having specific local people who will put other things on hold to help with a crisis).

I explained to the EIEC guy how it had turned out to be a bad breaker switch, and he said he was glad it was something so simple, and that we'd gotten our water back so quickly. Funny that I'd almost completely forgotten about that incident---but he hadn't. Very soon after he'd greeted me this morning, it had been one of the first things he'd asked about.

I love living here.

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