Case in Point

Case in Point – October 2017

“It seems like the apocalypse is upon us.”

A friend of mine made that observation in early September as what seemed like every conceivable natural— and manmade—disaster ravaged the United States.

While Oregonians watched in horror as Hurricane Harvey devastated parts of Houston, and Hurricane Irma waited in the wings to flatten the southeastern United States, the state of Oregon looked more like Beijing as smoke from wildfires polluted our legendary clean air and put entire communities at risk.

It was so bad that an electric co-op CEO suggested I wear a mask as I drove through a national forest area to speak to his employees. I didn’t heed his advice and I wheezed through a mountain pass. But I was lucky. At least my house wasn’t underwater or in danger of burning to the ground.

The images and carnage from the hurricanes are heartbreaking, but so are the stories of people helping their neighbors during these desperate times. The response from electric cooperative line crews racing to the southeast to help turn the lights back on for states plunged into darkness is just one example of how we are doing our part as humans to help those in need.

There are also stories you don’t hear, such as the one about Oregon co-op employees who helped a former employee remove prized possessions from a home that appeared destined to burn in a wildfire.

There were two lessons to be learned from the events of this fall. The first is that Mother Nature is an unstoppable force that can humble us all. But from these tragedies we learn the second lesson: We are at our best when things are at their worst.

Ted Case
Executive Director

Case in Point

Case in Point – September 2017

How do you tell the secretary of energy that his policy on the sale of the power marketing administrations is misguided and punitive?

I was faced with that question recently after I was asked to participate in a roundtable with Secretary of Energy Rick Perry and a small group of stakeholders at McNary Dam in Hermiston. Perry had accepted Congressman Greg Walden’s invitation to tour one of the great dams on the Columbia River—one with enough capacity to supply power for 686,000 homes.

After concluding his tour led by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Perry sat down with a group of elected officials and other industry professionals to discuss key issues in the Pacific Northwest. I did not know Perry beyond his two runs for the presidency and a deeply personal speech he gave before the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association legislative conference shortly after he was named energy secretary.

Clearly impressed with the tour, Perry was expansive and gracious. But the fact of the matter is, his administration had—like other administrations before it—proposed to sell off assets of the Bonneville Power Administration. If enacted, the proposal to sell off BPA’s transmission lines and substations could have tremendous ramifications for electric cooperative consumers.

It was not a subject we could avoid. During the roundtable, I outlined how some of Oregon’s small co-ops—some with barely one consumer per mile of line—could be left behind by a plan to auction off BPA’s transmission to the highest bidder.

Perry, who knows something about desolate rural areas in Texas, claimed his father used to call such areas “The Big Empty.” To his credit, Perry thoughtfully engaged in the issue and said it was important for BPA stakeholders, from time to time, to make an impassioned case for continued federal ownership of the facilities.

He is right, of course. We cannot rest on our laurels simply because it has always been this way. BPA will, like all of us, need to become more innovative and efficient. And while it appears the power marketing administration proposal will be blocked this year, perhaps we made some headway convincing the administration to shelve the PMA transmission auction in future years. I applaud Perry for his visit, and Walden for his invitation to bring him out here. Oregon will benefit greatly.

Ted Case
Executive Director

Case in Point

Case in Point – August 2017

What happened in the U.S. House of Representatives on June 21, 2017, reminds me of Shirley Povich’s classic lead paragraph in the Washington Post after game five of the 1956 World Series: “The million-to-one shot came in. Hell froze over. A month of Sundays hit the calendar.”

Povich was, of course, writing about one of the most improbable events in baseball history: Don Larsen’s perfect game for the New York Yankees against the fearsome Los Angeles Dodgers.

What happened on the House floor with H.R. 1873 didn’t receive nearly as much fanfare, but perhaps it should have. The Electric Reliability and Forest Protection Act, which is sponsored by Oregon Congressman Kurt Schrader, received 300 votes—including those of 69 Democrats. In a hyper-partisan atmosphere where hardly anything passes except along acrimonious party line votes, H.R. 1873 is indeed a rare event— a throwback to the halcyon days of bipartisanship. It takes a lot of courage these days to reach your hand across the aisle. Rep. Schrader deserves a lot of credit for forging alliances that led to this strong vote.

H.R. 1873 is a commonsense bill to streamline the permitting process for utilities whose power lines cross federal land—a major issue for Oregon’s electric cooperatives. The legislation also will help prevent forest fires and improve the reliability of the electric grid. However, opponents claimed the bill was nothing more than an attempt to clear-cut our federal forest lands.

I am heartened that Democratic Reps. Suzanne Bonamici and Peter DeFazio rejected this absurd argument and joined Schrader in supporting H.R. 1873. Oregon’s lone Republican congressman, Greg Walden, is a co-sponsor of the legislation and another champion for electric cooperative consumers. Oregon co-op leaders such as Central Electric CEO Dave Markham deserve credit for focusing Congress’ attention on the issue.

There will be more bitter debates and extreme partisanship on the House floor. The U.S. Congress will never be as perfect as Don Larsen’s brilliant gem on a crisp fall afternoon in 1956. But for one shining afternoon in the summer of 2017, it at least took the mound.

Ted Case
Executive Director

Case in Point

Case in Point – July 2017

I have a few random thoughts as we pass the halfway point of the year, the Oregon Legislature wraps up and the U.S. Congress heats up.

  • The Oregon Rural Electric Cooperative Association greatly appreciates the support of the Oregon Legislature this session, particularly those lawmakers who supported our efforts to convince Gov. Kate Brown to come to the negotiating table regarding her plan to spill more water over the dams for fish. The state of Oregon’s proposal could substantially raise rates for rural consumers, and we believe their voices should be heard. Gov. Brown has been outspoken about the importance of vibrant rural economies. We will know soon if her administration can back up those words. More than a half million rural Oregonians are counting on it.
  • The U.S. Congress is debating landmark legislation (H.R. 1873) to establish better coordination with land management agencies and utilities when it comes to managing rights-of-way. The Electric Reliability and Forest Protection Act would give electric cooperatives more consistent procedures and a streamlined process to better manage rights-of-way across heavily forested areas. Oregon Rep. Kurt Schrader has helped lead this effort in the U.S. House. This proposal has been an ORECA priority for the year. We appreciate the efforts to pass this commonsense legislation.
  • ORECA has several high-profile meetings coming up in the second half of 2017: our midyear meeting, director education conference and annual meeting. The agendas will focus on upcoming political challenges and the challenges facing the amazing federal hydro system. ORECA also celebrates its 75th anniversary this year. We are going to spend some time honoring cooperative leaders who helped build our statewide organization.
  • Speaking of history, thanks to the National Rural Utilities Cooperative Finance Corporation for the opportunity in June to debut my new book, “Poles, Wires and War: The Remarkable Untold Story of Rural Electrification and the Vietnam War.” CFC is a forward-looking organization, but also has a profound respect for the heritage of this amazing cooperative program. At CFC’s 2017 forum, I was honored to talk with several electric cooperative leaders who served in Vietnam during the war. Their stories deserve books of their own.

Ted Case
Executive Director

Case in Point

Case in Point – June 2017

The word seems to be getting out. Recently, a bipartisan group of Oregon legislators wrote Gov. Kate Brown urging her to “constructively participate with regional partners on the operation of the federal Columbia River system.”

It is a long-overdue request.

For years, the state of Oregon has been an outlier when it comes to the federal Columbia River system, insisting that it alone—through a risky plan to spill more water over the dams to push fish downstream—has the silver-bullet solution to improve salmon runs at federal projects. It is a baffling position, particularly for fisheries scientists who study these issues, and certainly one contrary to the “Oregon way”—the state’s rich history of collaboration and cooperation.

What Oregon does have, according to lawmakers, is an expensive proposal.

“The state of Oregon’s spill request has been estimated to cost customers of the Bonneville Power Administration $40 million per year, the impact of which will be felt greatest in the rural areas of the state,” wrote the Oregon legislators.

Oregon’s electric cooperatives certainly appreciate Rep. Sherrie Sprenger leading this important effort, which follows up a similar letter from U.S. Reps. Peter DeFazio and Kurt Schrader about Oregon’s spill program. The two Democratic congressmen—and strong advocates for electric cooperative consumers—also have raised significant issues about Oregon’s spill program, posing a series of questions to federal officials about its cost and effectiveness.

A federal judge has ruled more water will be spilled at certain federal dams in 2018. What is undecided: Will Gov. Brown work with federal officials, other Northwest states and Native Americans on a collaborative approach? Or will Oregon insist on its plan, even though it could force consumers at Harney Electric Cooperative, as one example, to pay an additional $100 a year for their electricity?

For the sake of the more than 500,000 consumers served by electric cooperatives, we certainly hope the new “Oregon way” isn’t simply about getting your way without considering other points of view.

Ted Case
Executive Director

Case in Point

Case in Point – May 2017

There are not a lot of new ideas coming out of Washington, D.C., but there are a lot of dumb old ones.

I have been in this business long enough to recall the arguments of the Heritage Foundation to sell off the federal hydropower system to help reduce the deficit. This idea goes all the way back to the 1980s and the Reagan administration, which tells me two things: The proposal has dust on it, and I have been in this business far too long.

It seems that plans to sell off the Bonneville Power Administration or the other power marketing administrations are rekindled every time a Republican takes over the White House. What follows are grandiose—albeit inflated— numbers of the windfall to the U.S. Treasury.

Usually the Heritage Foundation’s plans go nowhere until Congress or the White House puts them in motion. This happened in 1994 when President Bill Clinton—a Democrat— ripped a page out of the Heritage playbook and proposed the sale of the PMAs to the current customers such as electric cooperatives. Republican Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich then doubled-down on the idea by attempting to sell off the dams and the lakes to the highest bidder. It was a disaster for both Clinton and Gingrich.

The federal hydro projects serve multiple purposes, not just electricity for consumer-owned utilities. They often provide flood control, recreation and navigation. Unwinding the statutes governing these projects has proven to be daunting and not in the best interest of the American taxpayer. Clinton and Gingrich learned this the hard way.

Many of the people dusting off these ideas weren’t even born when they were first proposed. But that doesn’t mean that those of us who rely on the federal hydro system shouldn’t take the Heritage ideas seriously. We need to make the case to lawmakers about the merits of federal hydropower and give them a little history lesson along the way.

Ted Case
Executive Director

Case in Point

Case in Point – April 2017

No one can say electric cooperative leaders don’t have heart.

We are only a few weeks removed from ORECA’s Legislative Day in Salem, and I want to take this opportunity to thank co-op leaders and legislators for a memorable two days. I am always impressed with the dedication of the Oregon co-op leaders who participate in this important event.

It is not just about traveling hundreds of miles to meet with their legislators. One Oregon co-op leader traveled to Salem even though, only days before, he was told he has a serious heart condition that required two stents to be placed near his heart. Now that’s dedication.

I also want to thank members of the Oregon Legislature for being so generous with their time. Rep. Caddy McKeown, who graces our cover this month, helped kick off our Legislative Day activities with a fascinating overview of a potential transportation package.

Several lawmakers—including Reps. Greg Smith, Mark Johnson, Debbie Boone and David Brock Smith—made gracious comments from the House floor about their local electric cooperatives.

My main thank you, however, goes to all of the legislators who pledged to help us convince the state of Oregon to get out of the courtroom and start collaborating with other federal agencies, states and tribes who have pledged to work together on operation of the Columbia River system.

Legislators heard stories about how Oregon’s troubling and flawed proposal to spill more water over the dams will hurt Oregon’s fragile economy and harm our effort to counter global warming.

We hope this is the beginning of a new relationship with Gov. Kate Brown and the state of Oregon. This collaboration would not only benefit fish, it would show something that has been missing during years and years of litigation. It would show some heart for the people of rural Oregon.

Case in Point

Case in Point – March 2017

Ted CaseOregon electric cooperative leaders will descend upon the state Capitol this month to promote common-sense policies that allow us to provide our members with reliable, affordable and safe electricity. It is the most important day of the entire session for Oregon Rural Electric Cooperative Association members.

Bashing politicians is a cottage industry, but most who engage in that activity don’t notice how hard most legislators work or how many directions they are pulled each day. We never take our time in the Capitol for granted.

While we will discuss specific legislative proposals, you also can be certain we will talk generally about our clean, renewable hydroelectricity system.

Jeff Merkley, one of Oregon’s U.S. senators, is working on legislation to have 100 percent of the U.S. electricity portfolio be renewable energy by 2050. It is an ambitious goal for most of the country, but I am pleased to report that with a 95 percent emission-free portfolio, we are already close to that target—33 years early.

That is why we are so concerned with the state of Oregon’s troubling and flawed proposal to spill more water over eight dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers for fish. We believe Oregon’s spill plan will hurt Oregon’s rural economy by raising rates on fixed-income seniors who live in places most Oregonians have never heard of. And the top fish scientists in the country don’t think Oregon’s plan will help fish.

Moreover, to keep the lights on, the lost electrical generation from the dams must be replaced by natural gas—which is counter to the effort to wean Oregon off fossil fuels.

We look forward to collaborating with legislators and our governor to protect both Oregon’s natural resources and fragile rural economy. That’s the Oregon way. It is a goal we should strive for every year.

Ted Case
Executive Director

Case in Point

Case in Point – February 2017

Ted CaseOpening the box isn’t exactly like opening a Christmas present, but there is still a sense of anticipation.

The scene is the opening day of the Oregon Legislative Assembly—a day of ceremonies, speeches and pledges of bipartisanship. For lobbyists, it is a day to go into the bowels of the Capitol with a pair of scissors and break open the box of 1,500 pre-filed bills and see what kind of hand we have been dealt.

While some of the bills are expected, there are always surprises. Historically, some of this surprise legislation can have enormous consequences on Oregon’s electric cooperatives. I must admit I have found some things in the stack that made me raise an eyebrow.

While we analyze the implications of legislation, Oregon’s electric cooperatives enter the Capitol and the six-month marathon session with an enviable record.

We are 95 percent emission free because of our reliance on the incredible Columbia River hydro system. Moreover, our energy-efficiency programs continue to pay dividends. The Northwest Power and Conservation Council indicated in December that the region—yet again—surpassed its conservation target.

Statistics aside, there is nothing like being tested that shows one’s measure. This winter has been especially brutal in rural Oregon, where ice-coated trees have laid waste to electric power lines as if we are in a war zone. In some cases, we have rebuilt the lines only for another storm to hit. But through the amazing fortitude of the co-op linemen, unsung employees and neighboring crews, we are back up and running. I have never been more proud of my members.

So let’s bring on the legislative session and all the boxes to come. We are prepared for any surprise.

But let’s go easy on the ice storms.

Ted Case
Executive Director

Case in Point

Case in Point – January 2017

Ted CaseOne of my favorite holiday events each year is our annual co-op lunch in Salem with our state legislators. It’s a bit of a hybrid event, a celebration of Oregon’s co-ops— electric, telecommunications, credit unions and agriculture— and a thank you for legislators who work hard for their constituents.

There is much to like about the lunch, with its festive atmosphere and incredible food, courtesy of our terrific Oregon agriculture coops. And what better end to a prime rib lunch than Tillamook ice cream—everyone’s favorite co-op.

But what I like most about the event is how conservative Republican senators and liberal Democrat representatives sit at the same table with something in common: their support of Oregon’s coops. They may agree on little else, but on this day they have united for a common purpose.

One of our great strengths as co-ops— electric or otherwise— is that we receive support from a broad ideological spectrum.

Partisanship is a fact of life. If 2017 is anything like 2016, the advent of a new Congress and a new Oregon Legislative Assembly is going to test the fabric of our republic and state like never before. In our political arenas, there will be differences, sharp debates, and winners and losers.

No matter where you sit politically, Oregon’s coops can occasionally provide a safe refuge from partisan wrangling. We’re not-for-profit, exist to serve the members that own us, and perform our objectives exceptionally well. For legislators or anyone else, there is nothing more unifying than that.

Except for perhaps Tillamook ice cream.

Happy New Year!

Ted Case
Executive Director

Case in Point

Case in Point – December 2016

Ted CaseIt has been a long time since I’ve seen so many stories on rural America—about four years. It seems that during every presidential election, there is a flurry of coverage about the all-important rural vote.

This year it was particularly true with headlines such as, “Revenge of the Rural Voter” spawning deep analysis of what is really happening in “fly-over country,” the places rarely visited by the political elite—but where they think they understand by simply hanging out at a local diner.

I watched “Meet the Press” and “learned” what the polls tell us about these rural voters: They are bitter, uneducated and yearning for yesteryear. The jobs are all gone. They don’t go to Starbucks, they don’t take their kids on college tours, and on and on.

I don’t put a lot of stock in most of these commentators because they either live just off Central Park in Manhattan or sit in traffic on the Capital Beltway.

I don’t pretend to be the voice of small-town America either, even though I work for an organization that has “rural” in its name.

But here is what I do know: The rural leaders I’ve come across are some of the most civic-minded, forward-looking and innovative people you will ever meet. They may not go to Starbucks because it’s a 100-mile drive, though they make 100-mile drives with the same ease most of us go to the local strip mall. And while—at least in my state—there are more Oregon State Beavers than Yale Bulldogs, they understand the value of education and want to create a vibrant rural economy so their children don’t all flee to Portland.

Finally, they are not angry, bitter people. Despite the headlines, the “revenge” I hear about most is when the local eight-man football team gets beat by the rival across the county.

Perhaps it’s a good thing to have this much attention on rural America right now. We will take the spotlight while it’s on us. We’ll see if it continues as the election fades and the pundits retreat to their multitude of Starbucks, a Metro stop away from the White House.

Ted Case
Executive Director

Case in Point

Case in Point – November 2016

Ted CaseNot one of the several hundred attendees of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association Region 7 and 9 ACRE breakfast in October believed anything extraordinary was going to happen.

For those who are veterans of such meetings, the hour was expected to consist of bacon, eggs and a litany of state reports on progress with our political action committee. It’s an important breakfast, but honestly the only anticipated drama is how runny the eggs are.

The meeting certainly had a pall hanging over it. Only days before, we had received an update that our good friend Mike Peterson, the manager of the Utah Rural Electric Association, suffered a relapse of brain cancer. The prognosis was not promising.

Mike is a beloved figure in our program—a wonderful family man who worked his way up from lineman to being one of the effective political advocates in the country. He has been a mentor to many statewide managers, including me. The news of his relapse was sudden and devastating, with many of us at a loss of how to react.

Then something happened on the way to the microphone that morning. Someone decided not to give a state report, but rather to express what Mike has meant to them. It was an absolute inspiration, and the reason why the electric cooperative program is like none other.

What followed—from speaker after speaker—was a heartfelt, spontaneous celebration of Mike’s extraordinary life. I was honored to be a part of it, though I wish I was half as eloquent as my colleagues. Those of us who know Mike well—and even those who don’t—realized they were part of a special moment. I noticed an NRECA staff member using her cellphone to take video of the speakers.

“Tell me you got all of this,” I said to her.

She had. Thanks to the wonders of modern technology, these stories are preserved and have been relayed to Mike’s wife, Sheri, so he can view them.

Who knew that in an election year of such acrimony that a routine political breakfast would turn into something so profound. It is a testament to why the strength of the electric program is not our poles, wires and substations. It is people like Mike Peterson, who has touched more lives than he will ever know. And I am thankful that, in the most unlikely of venues, we got a chance to tell him that.

Ted Case
Executive Director