In so many ways, Fayette Electric Cooperative looks dramatically different from the utility that helped rural folks enter what it describes online as the modern world in 1937, when the co-op was formed.
Fayette EC has grown greatly over the past 85 years ago, to be sure. And the modern world in 2022 might seem fantastical to those 1930s members. Could they have even conceived of virtual meetings? IPads as essential tools in the field?
And yet, for the second year in a row, in response to the ongoing threat of the COVID-19 pandemic, Fayette EC held its July 20 annual meeting virtually as a video available on its website, fayette.coop.
As David Lehmann, board president, and Gary Don Nietsche, general manager, emphasized the meeting’s theme, Lightbulb Moments in Fayette Electric History, they leaned on predictability as proof of the co-op’s endurance. Not just the predictability of reliable and efficient service, but the stability of long-serving employees known to multiple generations of members.
As a member-owned business, co-ops rely on annual meetings to fulfill some of the Seven Cooperative Principles, including Members’ Economic Participation and Democratic Member Control.
Nietsche, Lehmann and the dozens of employees depend on members’ knowledge of the co-op’s financial well-being and willingness to participate in its leadership. To that end, FEC held an election to determine three of the seven seats on the board of directors.
Districts 1, 2 and 5 held meetings that declared the incumbent directors in each as the sole nominees, and Karen Mahoney-Woods, FEC’s attorney, reported that 1,719 members submitted ballots by the deadline. Lehmann in District 1, Joseph Kruppa in District 2 and James Anderle in District 5 were reelected for three-year terms.
Nietsche, speaking during one of Texas’ hottest summers on record, reviewed FEC’s challenges and performance during the February 2021 winter storm that proved to be one of the most brutal in state history.
He noted that in addition to 233 power outages on FEC’s system caused by high wind and icy conditions, many members faced rotating outages mandated by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas. “We have been told that Texas was a mere four minutes and 36 seconds away from complete collapse of the electric grid system, which could have possibly taken days to come back to operational status,” Nietsche said.
He also noted FEC did not incur the astronomical bills that many utilities around the state faced. Nietsche said the co-op’s long-term strategy for energy procurement was to hedge the portfolio against energy price volatility, and that strategy proved sound.
“We remained focused on protecting our co-op’s members from any potential effects,” Nietsche said. “I am happy to report that the cooperative has completely recovered the $6 million in ancillary services charges we incurred from Winter Storm Uri. This is a very favorable accomplishment, as many other cooperatives are having to pay off their obligations over a 10- to 20-year time period.”
Brandon Pieper, member relations and engineering supervisor at FEC, addressed another move that benefits employees and members. Line crews, right-of-way crews and other field personnel obtained iPads, allowing them to access data and the co-op’s electronic mapping system. The technology has also improved efficiency.
“It’s quicker for us to find the poles and where we need to do our work,” said lineman Corey Brown. “They have a function where you can actually trace the line upstream and downstream.”
As Nietsche further recapped 2021, he said lines were rebuilt and upgraded in the La Grange, Nechanitz, Willow Springs and Fayetteville areas to meet the growing electricity demand and to improve service.
In addition, the co-op added 364 meters; built 24 miles of line; cleared nearly 65 miles of right-of-way; spent more than $3 million on vegetation management; and returned $1.2 million in capital credits to members who were on FEC’s lines in 1994
Concern for Community and Education, Training and Information are two more Cooperative Principles that guide FEC’s operations. “Fayette Electric continues to support our local communities, not only with scholarships and student opportunities but also for our area nonprofits,” Nietsche said.
In partnership with the Sharing Success Grant Program offered by CoBank, a national cooperative bank, Fayette EC will award four nonprofits $5,000 each—$2,500 from FEC and $2,500 in matching funds from CoBank: the Schulenburg Area Food Pantry, And Then a New Day, the Alliance for College and Career Student Success and the Heritage Society Museum of Weimar.
FEC also sent two high school students on the Government-in-Action Youth Tour, a 10-day educational trip to Austin and Washington, D.C., sponsored by Texas Electric Cooperatives. Natalie Ohnheiser of Weimar High School and Charlie Herbrich of La Grange High School were among the 123 Texas delegates from 45 co-ops who helped usher Youth Tour’s return after a two-year hiatus because of the pandemic.
The co-op also awarded $1,500 scholarships to six area students, including, for the first time, two to students attending a trade or technical school.
The annual meeting video featured Fayette EC employees in the office and the field performing their everyday tasks. In addition, Lehmann and Nietsche spotlighted retired employees who dedicated decades of service to the co-op and current employees who reached service milestones this year. Those current employees are: David Walla, staking technician II, 40 years; Leonard Malota Jr., warehouse supervisor, 35 years; Leo J. Wick, assistant member relations and engineering supervisor, 25 years; Daniel Kovar, warehouse materials clerk, 20 years; Steven Kallus, lineman, 15 years; and Shane Drosche, apprentice lineman, 5 years.
“Our employees are our backbone and our source of strength during the challenging times we have endured the past two years,” Nietsche said.
Indeed, Fayette EC employees have been overcoming a number of challenges since 1937. The longtime workers bear witness to that. “To me, if you’re here a long time, you know, 30, 40 years, it’s dedication to your co-op, to your employer and to the members,” said safety coordinator Larry Sulak, a 36-year FEC employee.