Lea County Electric Cooperative, Inc. (LCEC)
was riding high in the saddle when
sent Field Editor Bob Shafer to southeastern New Mexico for a visit in the winter of 1969, the distribution system's 20th year of operation.
Lovington-based co-op was "a pumper of oil, a milker of cows, an irrigator of farms, and a lighter of homes" in an out-of-the-way corner of rural America that was enjoying the good life—perhaps for the first time. Shafer gave much of the credit to General Manager R.B. Moore.
Moore, a pipe-smoking pragmatist, was there at the beginning and, more than anyone else, seemed to have a clear vision of the co-op's future. He saw that, first and foremost, it had to solve its power supply problem. In Shafer's words, it had to "overcome a desperate power shortage, transforming sleepy inactivity into electric prosperity."
Organized in 1946, LCEC existed only on paper until Inland Utilities Company decided to sell a hopelessly overburdened power plant and a small distribution system. The co-op won them both in 1949 with a $525,000 bid and then hired Moore, who had worked for Inland, as its general manager.
Within two years, the co-op built a small diesel power plant, purchased a struggling West Texas utility, and built a 69,000-volt transmission line. Meanwhile, the co-op was adding new members at a fast pace.
It built distribution lines to serve consumers in three Texas counties—Gaines, Yokum, and Cochran—that had been passed over by central-station power, and it made friends of feedlot owners, irrigators, and oilmen who doubted a small co-op utility could keep up with their big plans for the South Plains.
"After feasibility was realized, the phenomenal success of Lea County Electric Co-op was the result, not just in meeting the existing power void, but also in keeping one step ahead of the growing needs created by a growing oil and agricultural industry," Moore told Shafer.
In 1961, LCEC added the first of two steam turbines to its power plant, doubling its generating capacity. But even that wasn't enough, so Moore and his board of directors signed a contract with investor-owned Southwestern Public Service for additional power.
All during this growth period, Moore preached "efficient operation in the midst of expansion" to his staff. His philosophy seemed to pay off in 1957 when LCEC won a national award for operating efficiency with an annual load factor of 70 percent, more than double Inland Utilities Company's load factor in 1949.
By 1969, with the addition of the second steam turbine, the co-op's generating capacity exceeded demand for the first time in its history. The 150 miles of line purchased from Inland had grown to 2,700. Revenue from kilowatt-hour sales each month was twice what Inland saw in a year. LCEC had become a regional leader in signing up "all-electric" homes, schools, and businesses.
"Twenty years ago," wrote Shafer, "an irresistible force—R.B. Moore and Lea County Electric—met an immovable object—the region's power void—and something had to give."
Today, Lea County Electric Cooperative serves more than 7,000 consumers and upwards of 15,800 meters in six counties in southeastern New Mexico and West Texas. Because of soaring natural gas prices, the co-op shuttered its generating plant in 1983 and began purchasing all its power from Southwestern Public Service.