Up until the mid-1980s, People’s Electric Cooperative felt outgunned by Oklahoma Gas & Electric (OG&E) every time a new company in town asked for a bid. But then the Ada, Okla.-based distribution system got a new weapon: a transmission line that ran right through a new industrial park. No longer would the wholesale power that People’s Electric purchased from Western Farmers Electric Cooperative be wheeled by the big investor-owned utility.
No longer could OG&E tell the co-op it didn’t have any available capacity for a new load and then turn around and serve that customer itself.
In 1987, the Solo Cup Company was looking at building a second manufacturing plant either in Ada or in South Carolina. OG&E officials assumed that if Solo chose Ada, they’d get the 3,500-kW load because the existing plant was already a customer.
But the co-op’s bid came in lower than OG&E’s, and its proposal for providing the uninterruptable service Solo sought was more convincing.
Oklahoma’s service territory law allowed open competition for loads above 1,000 kW, but OG&E officials argued that the new Solo plant was really just an addition to the existing account. When the co-op stood its ground, OG&E asked the Oklahoma Corporation Commission to decide.
People’s Electric members read about the standoff in the co-op’s monthly newsletter, and 200 members and employees showed up for the hearing in Oklahoma City, an 85-mile drive. They wore bright orange People’s Electric ball caps and carried folding lawn chairs so they’d be sure to get a seat in the small hearing room.
Several members testified. One noted that the new load would mean 150 good jobs for Ada and a $10-ayear savings for every residential account. Another quipped, “When God said, ‘Let there be light,’ he didn’t say it had to be OG&E.”
Solo Vice President Leo Carter said his company “liked the overall friendly attitude of People’s Electric,” then he shot the legs out from under OG&E when he explained that the new plant was a completely separate operation that could be located elsewhere. “It was not a question of People’s or OG&E, but rather People’s or South Carolina.”
The commission ruled 3–0 in the co-op’s favor.
David went up against Goliath again two years later. This time the “customer choice” loads were a hospital and a surgical supplies manufacturer named Look, Inc. In both cases, OG&E tried to muscle the co-op out of the way by building service lines before a contract was awarded.
The tactic backfired when the hospital ordered an OG&E underground construction crew off its property. Then, after OG&E started setting poles near Look, Inc.’s site, People’s Electric Operations Manager John Hudson dispatched a crew to do the same. Ada had awarded the right-of- way to the co-op, but a loophole in the law created a kind of squatter’s right.
The OG&E crew knocked off at 5 p.m., but the People’s Electric linemen worked past midnight, until they reached a point where OG&E couldn’t block the co-op from serving Look, Inc. A month later, the surgical supplier signed a service contract with People’s Electric.
Hudson told RE Magazine in the summer of 1989: “We found out, sure enough, you can win against the big guys.”