How a local power company is giving back to its customers
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ASHTON — Several miles south of Ashton along U.S. Highway 20 sits eastern Idaho’s only member-owned utility company.
Fall River Rural Electric Cooperative provides power to 14,000 customers throughout eastern Idaho, western Wyoming and southwest Montana and is one of about 900 member-owned power companies in the U.S.
One of the perks of being a member of Fall River Electric, according to company spokesman Ted Austin, is lower rates on your power bill.
“Our rates are typically lower than an investor-owned utility,” Austin tells EastIdahoNews.com. “The average rate of power per kilowatt-hour in Idaho is about 10 cents. We’re about nine and a half cents.”
Fall River Electric is also a nonprofit, which means revenue that exceeds operating costs in a given year is used to build or maintain infrastructure for customers. After 20 years, it’s paid back to the customer through the Patronage Capital Payout program. The amount of cash a member receives is based on how much electricity they purchased.
“For the average homeowner, it’s not a lot of money,” Austin says. “But if you’re a big commercial business, then your check is pretty sizable. A farmer or an irrigator — their checks are pretty sizable because their bills are sizable.”
In December, Fall River Electric paid out more than $1 million to nearly 6,500 of its customers for power purchased in 1998.
The company’s largest commercial customer is Grand Targhee Resort. We reached out for comment, but no one was available.
Chris Ricks was also among those who received a check. She and her husband, Mark, own 3,000 acres of farm ground in the Tetonia area. She declined to say how much they were paid, but the amount of power needed to maintain their property is substantial. She says it was a nice boost during the holiday season.
“(December) is when people spend a little extra money, so it’s really a great time to get just a little boost. It makes you feel better about what your power costs you,” Ricks says.
Building a cooperative
Fall River Electric was formed in 1938. Electricity was first brought to eastern Idaho in the early 1900s. It was brought to the upper valley in the 1920s by what was then Utah Power and Light, but Ashton was the end of the line. Investors didn’t feel it was cost-effective to expand power lines farther north because it was a rural area, Austin says.
The Rural Electrification Act of 1936 changed all that. It provided funding for power distribution in rural areas across the U.S., and that’s when locals got together to form what became Fall River Electric.
“Two years later, they built the lines and started to bring power to those farm homes and it expanded from there” into Madison County, Teton Valley, Island Park and West Yellowstone, Austin says.
Though the company is based in Ashton, the bulk of its customers are in Teton Valley and Fremont County. They also serve customers in Madison County and parts of Jefferson County that go through Labelle and near Ririe.
Solar power and the future of power distribution
Over the years, Fall River Electric has continued to be a reliable source of power for its customers. Increasing concerns about the power grid and its impact on the environment have prompted the use of renewable energy sources, such as solar and wind energy.
The declining cost of solar technology, along with tax incentives and other factors, has made solar power more popular in recent years. There are currently about 100 Fall River Electric customers who generate electricity using solar panels. If they generate more power than they use, they can send it back to the grid and receive credit.
The amount of credit solar customers receive caused a bit of a stir in the power industry in November when Idaho Power filed a proposal to lower the net metering by 50 percent, which would have decreased the amount of money solar customers with Idaho Power would have received.
The Idaho Public Utilities Commission eventually voted against that proposal. Though this would not have affected Fall River Electric, Austin says the idea of generating your own electricity through solar panels or wind turbines is a trend of the future.
“The least expensive way right now is to get power in your home or business the way it’s always been done, but this trend of generating your own power and having the ability to store that power will grow” as technology improves and costs go down, he says.
Fall River Electric recently partnered with local high schools to teach kids about renewable energy and how the industry works.
Small scale solar panels and wind turbines were installed at Teton High School, North Fremont High School and West Yellowstone High School so they can get a first-hand look at how much power it generates.
The organization also works with elementary schools to teach kids about safety around power lines and hosts a food drive every year to help provide food for families in need.
“It’s very rewarding to be involved in the communities we serve and be part of an organization (that is owned and operated by its customers),” Austin says.
Fall River Electric is at 1150 N. 3400 E. in Ashton. Visit the website to learn more.