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WNC Business

Challenges and wins for a rural electric cooperative

Sep 05, 2023 12:22PM ● By Randee Brown

Energizing its first lines nearly 85 years ago, the Haywood Electric Membership Corporation began a couple of years after Franklin Delano Roosevelt established the Rural Electrification Administration. This legislation made it possible for rural areas to come together, form their own cooperatives, and apply for infrastructure loans to supply rural areas with energy.

Mitch Bearden, Manager of Marketing and Economic Development, said Haywood EMC began in the Cruso community and has grown to serve six WNC counties, as well as one county in Georgia and one county in South Carolina. He said the people served within eight districts are members who own the company and hold elections to determine who serves on the board for three-year terms.

Instead of producing its own power, Haywood EMC’s energy is purchased at a wholesale rate from Duke then sold to members as cheaply as possible, according to Bearden. Transmission lines feed substations and distribution points in areas where investor-owned utility companies don’t find it economically feasible to provide energy to rural areas.

“With 97% of our power going to residential locations, many of which are second homes, it’s not economical for others to serve these areas,” Bearden said. “It costs money to maintain these miles of lines even if not much power is being used.”

Headquartered in Waynesville and Lake Toxaway with an outpost in Scaly Mountain, Haywood EMC employs just under 90 staff with five at the management level. They serve about 28,000 electric meters and about 26,000 members.

Operating in rural WNC presents a variety of challenges, and according to Bearden, wildlife can be a huge problem.  “Very steep banks allow wildlife easier access to lines,” he said. “Animals can cause a short and an outage, which can cause a fire and total loss of substations. We do all we can to keep wildlife out, but with the great amount of wildlife here, that can be hard.”

The rugged terrain and vast number of trees can also cause problems, according to Beardon. Trees fall regularly and there are long spans of line that can only be reached by repair crews hiking in with gear. “It’s very physically taxing for them,” he said. “Sometimes we can get in with an ATV, but not always, and it’s really hard to hike in carrying 70 pounds of gear.”

There is not much geographical expansion possible for Haywood EMC. Bearden said they would only be able to expand if a city or municipal-owned utility company decided not to provide its own power or if there is new construction in their area. Expansion in the variety of services offered; however, is possible.

The organization’s first solar array was installed in April of 2022, and they are working on a second to be completed by the end of summer 2023. Members will be able to procure a subscription to these solar panels, allowing a use of that technology in a less cost-prohibitive way.

“We are also doing some things with electric vehicles,” Bearden said. “There have been grants available to put in chargers and bolster the charging network, and North Carolina is capturing lots of federal money for that. We installed the first EV charger off I-40 between Asheville and Knoxville, and there are a couple of chargers at our offices. We worked to help other businesses get grants to secure funds to install chargers at their location, and provide customer incentives for nighttime rather than daytime EV charging to better balance our grid.”

Bearden said the organization also works with businesses on energy audits and different lighting installation solutions that can help save energy. Haywood EMC works to secure grants for other energy reduction possibilities for businesses, and offers a program for members to round their bill up to the next dollar amount to supplement energy costs for area nonprofits.

As a nonprofit, Haywood EMC does a lot of community sponsorships via community programs like the Little League as well as school grants through the NC Bright Ideas program. Bearden said these are STEM-heavy grants, many of which help provide more curriculum to teach students about renewable energy.

Haywood EMC also participates in community fundraising and community events with organizations including the local chapter of Kiwanis International. “Historically these events attract older members of the community, but recently event attendees have been trending younger,” Bearden said. “It’s cool to see so many younger folks showing up to these events. All generations here are showing a tendency to be community-minded, and we are happy to be involved with the community in this way.”