January 2012

Celebrating Electrical Power In Rural New Mexico

by Florence Dean

On January 6, 1912, the Territory of New Mexico finally became the 47th state of the Union. Throughout much of the next 100 years as electricity became widely available, electric cooperatives played a huge part in rural electrification.

Electricity for lighting had been in use in large cities, primarily between the hours of 4:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m., since the turn of the century. In New Mexico, electricity was available only in and close to the settled areas around Albuquerque, Las Cruces and Roswell. Farmers in the 1920s sometimes resorted to carbide lamps; then light plants driven by engines or wind were used by those who could afford them. These forms of energy often could not sustain the small appliances then available.

Life on farms and ranches was difficult before the advent of electricity. Men rose early to milk cows by hand, or tend to pigs, goats and cattle with a kerosene or gasoline lamp in hand. Every chore a woman tackled involved hard labor; water had to be heated for laundry and baths, sad irons (heavy irons heated on the wood stove) for clothing. All cooking and baking was done over the wood stove. Summers, when canning was added to their daily chores, the wood stove heat led to outdoor "summer kitchens."

In New Mexico, many lived beyond the reach of existing power lines, and more lived so far out they despaired of ever getting "the electric."

By the 1930s, the small town utility companies were being asked to extend service to neighboring farms. When this was accomplished, it usually meant the farmer paid for construction costs in the form of a non-refundable contribution.

In 1933, Morris Llewellyn Cook, an American engineer born in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, knew improvements in generating and transmission equipment would make electricity cheaper. He was appointed as director of the Rural Electrification Administration (REA) by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1935. He and his staff itemized all the components of transmitting electricity and found that construction costs for power lines should be three to fifteen hundred dollars per mile cheaper than what private utility companies charged. Therefore, it should have been possible for the private utility companies to extend service into the rural areas for a fraction of then current charges.

When the New Mexico Rural Electrification Authority Act was established in early 1935, it seemed a step forward. However, with no funds attached to it, the act was essentially ineffective. When the Rural Electrification Act went into effect in 1936, it carried with it a 10-year lending program, extended indefinitely by Congress in 1944.

In the beginning, operation of the REA came under the federal relief program, which required at least 25 percent of funds be spent on labor, 90 percent of which was taken from the unemployed "relief" rolls. It was soon found that electric lines could not be built without using skilled labor. President Roosevelt then changed the REA to a lending agency.

Enter the cooperatives. By late 1935, farm and rural co-ops were becoming the largest entity to borrow REA funds. Though the idea of a cooperative for electricity was at first met with some trepidation, and it cost $5 to sign up (a major cost at that time), farmers and ranchers flocked to join. Sometimes, when the man of the house hesitated, his wife would eagerly hand over the fee.

It was determined at first there had to be three hookups per mile, and sometimes not enough people signed up. A story is told about one farmer who was informed his home was not close enough to the proposed electric line. He came back a few days later with his $5 fee, announcing, "I moved my house!"

Though there was some concern the proposed 40 kilowatt-hours a month might be superfluous, there was an instant increase in purchases of small appliances like irons, radios, washing machines, vacuums and toasters, as well as the motors and appliances that helped outdoors. Stoves and refrigerators were also popular purchases that gobbled up electricity.

By 1939, an average cost of a mile of rural electric line was $538, or $825 including overhead. Previously, the cost had been between $1,500 and $2,000 for the same line. By then, single-phase lines marching along a country road signaled low-cost rural electrification—and the REA.

When World War II began in 1941, many hired men and family members went off to war, and all those electric appliances—the milling machines, water pumps, brooders, and grinders—enabled farmers and ranchers to continue producing food for the country. But in many co-op offices, one manager and one lineman working long hours held down the fort for the duration.

During the war years, the REA anticipated an increased demand for electricity when the armed forces returned. And in 1944, Congress passed the Pace Act, making the REA a permanent agency. This changed the interest rate that REA borrowers had been paying, and not only set the rate at two percent but changed the length of time to pay back loans from 25 to 35 years. By 1950, the REA had financed over a million miles of electric lines and delivered power to over 75 percent of rural homes.

The New Deal's federal hydroelectric projects came on line after 1945, but still, postwar growth and demand for power put a heavy load on the country's electric generators. Major power outages in rural areas occurred, where the co-ops depended largely on outside sources of power. Power developments were authorized, and public entities were given preference in obtaining power. Cooperatives became eligible for this preference as part of the Tennessee Valley Authority Act in 1933, making it possible for them to purchase wholesale power at a rate comparable to private suppliers.

The NRECA—National Rural Electric Cooperative Association—was formed in 1942, when 10 rural electric leaders met in Washington on March 19 to incorporate the organization, reinforcing the growth of rural electrification.

Though the REA was briefly terminated on December 29, 1972, when the United States Department of Agriculture declared electrification loans would henceforth be made, at higher interest rates, under a new Rural Development Act, it was restored in May, though at higher interest rates. And, in 1969, the National Rural Utilities Cooperative Finance Corporation was formed.

Twenty-five years after New Mexico became a state, Central Valley Electric Cooperative (CVEC) of Artesia was incorporated June 23, 1937, and became the first recipient of an REA loan in New Mexico. On October 5, 1938, the first electric line financed by the REA in New Mexico was tied to the transmission system of Southwestern Public Service.

The initial loan to construct this distribution system was for $164,000. In years to come, CVEC expanded its service into the nearby oil fields, with much of its revenue coming from this source. Beginning with 80 miles of distribution lines, CVEC now encompasses 29 substations, 13,294 meters, 3,945 miles of overhead line, and 13 miles of underground line. This year the Central Valley Electric Cooperative celebrates its 75th anniversary.

Elsewhere in New Mexico, co-op after co-op began forming; Farmers' Electric, Clovis, followed CVEC with its first section energized on November 30, 1938, Roosevelt County Electric, Portales, in 1939, and Otero County Electric, Cloudcroft, in 1940. In 1946, when 17-year-old Glenn Holland joined Farmers' Electric, he recalls receiving outage reports via a postcard. Minimum bills in the beginning were $3.50 per month with service being extended for an additional cost of $7.50 per month, per mile, for a period of five years. Holland worked at the co-op for 50 years.

The Mora-San Miguel Electric Cooperative, Mora, was incorporated December 17, 1940, with an REA loan of $96,000, and in 1968 purchased Pecos Light & Power, energizing the new system at a cost of $858,000. By 1976, revenues were at almost one million dollars, with 1,117 miles of line. By 2009, the electric co-op served 10,727 consumers.

Kit Carson Electric, Taos, was incorporated October 19, 1944, while Sierra Electric, Truth or Consequences energized its first section on June 22, 1945. By September 14, 1945, Continental Divide Electric Cooperative, Grants, serving McKinley and Valencia Counties had incorporated, and Socorro Electric, Socorro, was incorporated on November 17, 1945.

Central New Mexico Electric, Mountainair, was incorporated March 8, 1945, with its first section of line energized July 26, 1949. The first incorporated meeting was held on June 29, 1947, in Corona. At a meeting on August 14, 1947, it was noted that 518 people had signed applications for membership, while only 125 were required before funds would be disbursed.

Springer Electric, Springer, serving Colfax and adjoining areas of Mora, Harding and Union Counties energized its first section on July 28, 1947. Northern Río Arriba Electric Cooperative (NORA), Chama, was incorporated on August 5, 1948, with the first home, that of H.E. Brook, energized in 1950. In 1989, NORA received the Carl Turner Safety Award, and in 1995 began selling electric thermal storage heating units. The Carl Turner Safety Award was again awarded to NORA in 2001.

Lea County Electric energized on March 5, 1949, and Columbus Electric Cooperative on July 15, 1949. Also in 1949, Jemez Mountains Electric Cooperative, Española energized its first section as did Southwestern Electric Cooperative, Clayton, on November 1, 1949.

In 1962, Mr. and Mrs. John McGuffin, members of Lea County Electric Cooperative became the five millionth rural electric consumer, receiving new electric appliances for their home located in Tatum.

Throughout the years, New Mexico's rural electric cooperatives have offered and continue to offer products and services such as Energy Star appliances and home energy audits. The cooperatives are also very active in their communities from sponsoring little league teams to scholarships, to youth programs such as the Government-In-Action Youth Tour.

Now fast forward to the 2000s, and New Mexico's electric cooperatives have been active in providing renewable energy resources to co-op consumers. Since August 2008, Kit Carson Electric Cooperative continues its Solar Photovoltaic Project at the University of New Mexico-Taos campus. The project deploys one-megawatt of distributed solar photovoltaic power to the area.

The Cimarron Solar Facility, located within the service area of Springer Electric Cooperative, one of Tri-State Generation and Transmission's member cooperatives, became fully operational in November 2010. The 30-megawatt, 500,000 solar-panel solar photovoltaic power plant is on a 250-acre site. It provides enough energy to serve the equivalent of 9,000 homes.

Lea County Electric concluded 2011 by testing its newly constructed LCEC Generation plant. The approximately 40-megawatt power plant has five Wärtsilä generating engines that run on natural gas. The engines can reach full operating capacity in just five minutes. They do not require significant amounts of water and meet all air quality requirements. The generation plant is expected to be fully operational in 2012.

As 2012 begins, New Mexico celebrates its 100th anniversary of attaining statehood, and the electric co-ops will continue to provide consumer-members with safe, reliable and affordable power.

Year 2012 is also designated as the International Year of Cooperatives. "We're surrounded by a diverse mix of cooperatives. No matter what kind of co-op you belong to, two things are clear; we put people first, and we are innovators. By getting neighbors and communities to work together, co-op members build a better world," says Glenn English, CEO of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association.

For more information on New Mexico's rural electric cooperatives, visit www.nmelectric.coop. For celebrations pertaining to our state's centennial, visit www.nmcenntenial.org.

Return to top