Rock Energy Cooperative celebrating 75th anniversary
JANESVILLE Stan Dybevik can't remember exactly who threw the switch or what day it happened.
But he'll never forget the light that flooded his childhood home when the Rock County Electric Cooperative Association reached Spring Valley Township with electricity nearly 75 years ago.
"I do remember the pretty fixtures on the walls and the little ceiling lights in the kitchen and living room," Dybevik said. "I just remember that it was really, really bright.
"Man, it was something."
Dybevik's home wasn't the first served by the cooperative, which is now known as Rock Energy Cooperative and is celebrating its 75th anniversary.
That honor goes to the Woodman farm just east of Janesville.
"Seeing the rural areas that had been so dark get lit up was just amazing," Dybevik said.
That was the idea when a group of farmers joined forces in 1936 to bring power to Rock County's rural areas, where only 10 percent of residents had power.
At the time, more than 90 percent of city dwellers had electricity.
The local utility didn't want anything to do with the expense of running power to what was then the hinterland, so the farmers decided to form a cooperative and do it themselves. About the same time, an act of Congress launched the Rural Electrification Administration that would make money available to keep the dream alive for rural areas and the groups that wanted to serve them.
The local group—farmers by nature—started a cooperative, worked out a power supply agreement, signed up members, borrowed money, hired employees, put poles in the ground and strung wire with a promise to bring a better life to the countryside.
"It was a real gutsy move for people who knew nothing about the distribution of electricity," said Denny Schultz, director of utility operations. "But the real test came once all the lines were up with all of the liability."
Dybevik attributes it to old-fashioned gumption, not only in Rock County but also across the country.
He ought to know. His father, John Dybevik, was one of the founders who went on to serve 25 years on the co-op's board of directors.
The younger Dybevik joined the board in 1971 and retired from it in March, meaning there was a family member on the co-op's board for 65 years of its 75-year history.
"I just grew up with the co-op," said Dybevik, who at 82 said he would still be an involved member. "I didn't always understand it, but I certainly recall Dad going off to the meetings."
The Dybeviks embody the family atmosphere that's the culture of the co-op, said Shane Larson, Rock Energy's chief executive officer.
In fact, three other families in addition to the Dybeviks had multi-generational representation on the board.
"Our world is certainly unique," Larson said. "We talk about the culture of the co-op in everything we do.
"We live by the model and philosophy every day."
With a lifetime in the front row, Dybevik agrees.
"The culture is the great thing about the co-op," he said. "It's member-owned, member-operated and the directors come from the membership.
"There's just a real closeness."
That's evidenced by the fact that about 1,000 members turned out for a recent appreciation breakfast.
Rock County Electric Cooperative started with a couple hundred meters and four employees. Today, Rock Energy's 50 employees serve 27,000 meters in an eight-county service area in southern Wisconsin and northern Illinois.
Headquartered in Janesville, it also has an office in South Beloit, Ill.
Rock Energy is one of 930 electrical cooperatives in the United States that serve 12 percent of the population across 75 percent of the nation's land mass.
"For 75 years, Rock Energy Cooperative and its members have chosen to unite as a collective body to energize our homes and our businesses," Larson said. "The decades have demonstrated that no matter what the challenge, the cooperative has remained focused on its mission to deliver safe and reliable energy at a competitive price."
Members become members by virtue of their location. Geographical service areas are well defined by state commissions.
Rock County's other provider is Alliant Energy, which supplies Rock Energy with its power at a wholesale rate. The retail rates Rock Energy charges its customers are generally lower than those paid by Alliant customers, Larson said.
"As a not-for-profit, we're a cost-of-service provider," Larson said. "Our lenders require certain cash flows and margin, but each year we try to return profits to our investors who are our members."
Since its founding, the co-op has paid more than $9 million in capital credits to its members.
"We keep rates low and competitive, provide outstanding service and, at the end of the day, that's what makes us attractive to members and businesses considering moving into the area," he said.
"We want very much to be taken for granted. We want members to flip a switch and not think anything about us."