ASC Willis Fassett, Jr. Award recipient is San Luis Valley Rural Electric Cooperative

(11-05-2010)

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Heather Sanchez, John Villyard, and Mike Rierson, are pleased with the honor.

Hard-working individuals with conviction and dedication brought light to isolated areas of the San Luis Valley. The San Luis Valley Rural Electric Cooperative was established in 1937, when a group of “"forward thinking" farmers met to address the need for electric power in regions not served by public utility companies. Chief Executive Officer John Villyard, SLV Rural Electric Cooperative Board President Mike Rierson, and Heather Sanchez, manager of member services and human resources, are part of the cooperative family.

Winters continue to be long and cold, but how much colder and longer they must have been for the many rural residents who had no electricity. Although the more populated areas were served by established utility companies, there was not enough profit to run lines out to remote farms, ranches, and residents. This prompted meetings, plans, cooperation, and determination that eventually became the SLV Rural Electric Cooperative.

Adams State College beginnings were similar, when in the early 20s a group of concerned citizens convinced Governor Billy Adams to support opening a teacher's college in Alamosa, Colo. Both institutions had a long and challenging road ahead of them. They hired competent hard-working staff to promote their missions and goals. At times, land owners did not want poles to run electricity on their property. There were those at the State Capital who opposed Adams State. True to their convictions, early founders persevered and it would be hard to image the valley without SLVREC or Adams State.

In the late 80s, SLVREC established scholarships, for its members, to Adams State. In honor of SLVREC's continued support, the college presented them with the 2010 Willis Fassett, Jr., Award, on November 4. "John and all of us are excited to receive the award," Rierson said.

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Adams State Foundation Board President Duane Bussey presents John Villyard, with the Buffalo Chant bronze, created specifically for the Foundation by the late William Moyers, Adams State alumnus.

According to Villyard, part of the mission of SLV Rural Electric Cooperative is community outreach and support. "Our association with Adam State College is an ultimate demonstration of our mission." The cooperative has increased the number of scholarships awarded over the years. Villyard said: “Education assistance in a rural area allows students to have more opportunities for the future.”

According to Reirson, the scholarship applicants are "extraordinary and motivated." The board and staff members spend a "very long day" reviewing transcripts and applicants.

"There are so many amazing students, it is hard to choose," Sanchez said. "Every penny counts when you put a child through college."

Community outreach

Along with financial aid to attend Adams State, the cooperative provides scholarships to trade schools including lineman training; reaches out through weatherization programs to help reduce power bills; swaps out incandescent bulbs for compact fluorescent lamps; and offers rebates on low efficiency appliances. In addition, SLVREC understands the need to support youth programs. Every year, the cooperative sends one high school student on the National Rural Electric Youth Tour to Washington, D.C. and another student has an opportunity to attend the Youth Leadership Camp at Glen Eden Resort near Steamboat Springs.

"We need strong leaders for the future of the valley, to help move our community forward," Sanchez said.

Future generations have the SLVREC founders to thank for their vision and foresight. "The history of the cooperative is very important," Rierson said. There are 22 utility cooperatives in the state, SLVRE was the second one established in Colorado, after the passing of the Rural Electrification Act in 1936, by President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

According to the San Luis Valley Historian, volume XXVI Number 3, 1994, the act established the Rural Electrification Administration as an agency of the United States Department of Agriculture and authorized the lending of funds with emphasis on cooperatives and public utilities. Immediately rural communities began to form local cooperatives and apply for loans.

Monte Vista, Colo., has always been the headquarters of SLVREC. The first two offices were located in downtown, and in 1957 the cooperative constructed the current site a couple miles west of Monte Vista. Six years ago, the building was renovated and a new annex was added.

The cooperative benefits by joining other cooperatives including the Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association, a wholesale electric power supplier owned by the 44 electric cooperatives that it serves. Tri-State generates and transmits electricity to its member systems throughout a 200,000 square-mile service territory across Colorado, Nebraska, New Mexico and Wyoming. "We own 1/44 of the company," Rierson said.

Over the years, SLVREC has experienced growth and progress. Its revenue increased from 1.2 million in 1970 to 26.7 million in 2009; the number of accounts has tripled and their staff has grown. The cooperative serves areas throughout the San Luis Valley, including Alamosa, Rio Grande, Costilla, Conejos, Mineral, and Saguache Counties.

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John Villyard accepts award.

The cooperative continues to stand by its founding ideals and principles. "We have the members at heart, through thick and thin," Villyard said. Sanchez agrees, "We don't answer to shareholders, our members own us, it is their cooperative and we are the stewards."

Many members and employees are second generation, including Villyard, whose father was the SLVREC manager from 1947 until 1973. Two of their board members' fathers and grandfathers were on the board and several employees are second generation.

This strong sense of community and family keeps the cooperative connected to its members. The office staff answers the phones personally, during office hours. "We do not have a phone system," Sanchez said. She said the cooperative is always looking for ways for members to receive the "biggest bang for their dollar," and always consider the least affluent member when considering costs. "Our board agonizes over increasing rates," she continued. "We are motivated to cover our expenses, not to make a profit."

Forward into the future

Along with a deep commitment to their historical roots, SLVREC looks ahead to the future. The cooperative considers green energy important for the future of power and emphasizes conservation, always keeping their members best interests in mind. Members would bear the initial costs for alternate energy. "The investment could raise rates and create hardships for those living on a fixed income." Reirson said.

Villyard agreed, "We stress energy conservation and efficiency." However, they also have alternative energy programs in place. SLVREC buys green energy from Tri State when members invest in "green blocks." Purchasing green power blocks is an inexpensive and easy way to "go green." Members control how much, or how little, green power they purchase. The amount of green power they purchase enters the electric grid and will offset power generation through conventional sources. The green power source is primarily wind and solar.

Both Wolf Creek Ski Area and the Alligator Farm, members of SLVREC, are 100 percent green from the premiums they have paid. "Members can voluntarily choose to purchase green blocks," added Villyard.

The story of SLVREC is bright and filled with interesting and humorous tales. There is only one copy of the San Luis Historian, volume XXVI Number 3, 1994, mentioned earlier, and Villyard guards it carefully. The edition is filled with SLVREC's history and cartoons by Web Allison. The following is an excerpt from page 22. "Electricity brought water into the house and outmoded the privy. For the farmer a one-horse motor was the best hired man he had ever had. It pumped water, sawed wood and lifted hay to the loft...Home life changed, too. It was a toss-up whether electric irons or radios were the most popular item."

Because it was founded by members and continues to be governed by members, this cooperative follows traditions and remains connected to its roots. "We have a strong sense of rural values," Rierson said.

By Linda Relyea