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Electric co-ops were growing by leaps and bounds in the years immediately following World War II. It seemed like every rural household that didn’t have modern electric service wanted it “now,” and every household that already had it was using more kilowatt-hours each month.
Then, suddenly, many co-ops hit a wall: There wasn’t enough power supply to keep up with all this growth—at least not at a fair price.
Jim McCarty, vice president of communications at the Association of Missouri Electric Cooperatives (statewide), tells how one co-op dealt with this problem in a history he wrote for Missouri Rural Electric Cooperative.
Missouri Rural Electric had signed a wholesale power contract with the city of Palmyra in October 1936, a month before asking for bids to build its first line. Everything went smoothly until 1944, when the city council summoned Frank Schmit, the co-op’s manager, to city hall to tell him the municipal diesel plant might not be able to keep up with post-war growth.
Schmit then met with representatives of Missouri Power & Light, but the investor-owned utility’s (IOU) offer was “not satisfactory,” according to board minutes McCarty dug up. Two years passed. The city asked Missouri Rural Electric to sign a new contract, for 10 years. But the federal Rural Electrification Administration (REA), the co-op’s banker, said that was too long.
On Dec. 5, 1946, the city council passed a resolution giving the co-op six months to find a new power supplier.
“The increasing use of electrical appliances, both in the city and on the farms, has at times strained the Palmyra plant’s producing facilities, new records of use being often recorded,” reported the Herald-Whig of Quincy, Illinois, the biggest newspaper in the area. The story also said the co-op would soon be adding 200 farms to its lines.
Schmit traveled to Washington, D.C., to ask REA for help. Then he tried to negotiate a deal with IOU Union Electric, which had a delivery point in Palmyra.
A short-term solution was found at the eleventh hour: Missouri Rural Electric built a line to Monroe City and used a substation owned by neighboring Ralls County Electric Cooperative to take delivery of another allotment of municipal power.
Meanwhile, Lewis County Rural Electric Cooperative, another northeast Missouri neighbor, filed a lawsuit to prevent the city of Canton from shutting off its power supply. All three co-ops were faced with interrupting service to their members at peak times.
A stopgap measure, and a desperate one, as McCarty tells it, was to build a line to a nearby military ordnance plant with an idle generator. U.S. Rep. Clarence Cannon had to introduce special legislation in Congress to pave the way.
Missouri Rural Electric reached the point where it was going between $600 and $700 in the red each month due the high cost of wholesale power. The problem was “growing more critical day by day,” co-op member R.D. Pennewell told the Rural Electric Missourian.
Squeezed out by municipal utilities who gave priority to customers within their city limits, and frozen out by IOUs that wanted their business only at inflated prices, the northeastern Missouri co-ops realized that until they controlled their own power supply destiny, they would continue to be starved for power and see their growth stunted. Their response was to create a generation and transmission co-op, Northeast Power, which today is part of Associated Electric, the statewide G&T.
Northeast Power received its first loan from REA in 1948 and, over the next few years, built the South River Power Plant on the west bank of the Mississippi River near Palmyra. It comprised a 7,500-kilowatt diesel plant and a 15,000-kW coal plant— enough power for every farm and rural home or business that wanted electricity. The diesel plant was fired up in 1951, the coal plant in 1953.
Northeast Power also built 400 miles of transmission line to deliver power to 26 load centers within the service territories of six distribution systems (the three already mentioned and three more that joined the G&T later). By 1955, those co-ops were serving 23,500 consumers.
At the dedication of the South River Power Plant, Rep. Cannon praised the co-ops for their hard work and foresight and then warned against IOU leaders who wanted to destroy co-ops and double or triple the price rural consumers paid for electricity:
“Guard the right and privileges of every consumer to have electricity at a reasonable price.”