A conversation with Bill Speights, Board Vice President at Deep East Electric Co-op, TX.

It was a sight so magical that nearly 80 years later, Bill Speights remembers it vividly. It was 1939, late in the year. He was only three years old and waiting with his family that gathered in the living room watching a single light bulb hanging from the wire. Somebody hit the switch.

“It was dazzling,” recalled Speights. Their small farmhouse in the pine-filled region of East Texas was among the first to get hooked up by the co-op, which started stringing wire just the year before.

“It was a shock because at night it was always so dark. Even with the oil lamps. I guess that’s why it made such a big impression on me even though I was so young.”

As it turned out, that electric magic has lasted a lifetime for Speights, board vice president at Deep East Electric Co-op in St. Augustine, Texas. He also serves on the G&T board of Tex-La Electric Co-op. For most of his life, the co-op loomed large. His father, D.B. Speights, who ran a timber business, served on the co-op board. They often talked about the impact it had on the lives of their neighbors in this region, which extends to the Louisiana state line.

Read the history of Deep East Texas Electric Co-op.

“It changed everything fast. Before the power came, we had a battery radio like my grandmother. It was not too long before we bought our first appliance. A radio. Then we got a refrigerator and then it was a washing machine. That’s the way it went at first for a lot of us.”

Speights says he is grateful his own 22 years of service on the co-op board is informed by a perspective that coincides with the history of rural electrification. For example, he said that one of his constant concerns is reliability of service. Why? Because providing reliable power to members is the business.

In 2016, however, the ramifications of even a blip of a micro-second can be more disruptive than the week-long outages he can recall from his youth. “Our members expect a whole lot more today, and with good reason. There’s a lot more at stake now than then with data systems nowadays that serve every sector of our lives. Everything depends on a reliable flow of those electrons.”

Speights said his sensitivity about reliability is connected to his first career spent mostly working at the headquarters of oil giant Sunoco in Philadelphia, where he headed the company’s computer department from its nascent beginnings in the 1960s to the advent of the Internet. Computing has always been sensitive to power fluctuations.

After retiring from Sunoco, Speights returned to a home on his family’s land, started a lumber business from his 900-acre tree farm, specializing in loblolly pines. And he also became the CEO at a local bank, where he continues to serve as a director.

His business and financial background make him passionate about governance. Why? “Because the heart of governance is about accountability and the stability of an institution. Again, his professional experiences transfer directly to his duties as a director. And he has seen a lot of change.

“I’d say the co-op is much more transparent than it was even 20 years ago. A lot more is in the spotlight. Members are lot more knowledgeable about rules and laws. This all calls for a much more educated director.

Though what he has experienced in the past with the co-op serves him in the present, it’s really the prospects of the future that keep him passionate.

“I’m very optimistic. We are seeing more and more renewables and distributed generation. Well, that’s going to affect rates and billing systems. I am anxious to see what it turns into. If you think far enough down the road, we might see a time when we won’t charge by kilowatt hours but from a more demand side rate structure. Members will buy a certain package of service, for example. It may look a lot like telecommunications. Anyway, I’ve always been anxious to see what the next day brings.”

Continuing the Conversation

How did you come to be on the board? Were you appointed? Were you elected?

When I retired and came back to the area, I was appointed to a vacant position. I’ve been reelected ever since.

What motivated you to want to serve on your co-op board?

It’s another way to serve my community. It’s very important. I am blessed to be very active at my age (80). I am on several other boards, too. I enjoy talking to people. It gives you a feel of what is on their minds and that makes you a better director.

What surprised you the most in joining the board?

I grew up knowing about co-ops and their role. I remember the lights coming on. I have been involved with big and little companies in my career. So I felt confident going in. The whole industry keeps changing. It calls for a more educated director if you want your co-op to succeed.

As a director, what keeps you awake at night?

One of the biggest things I worry about is cyber security – not just for the co-op but to some extent for the whole grid. The day we plugged a telephone wire into a computer was the day we became vulnerable to hackers and all kinds of trouble. Nobody really knows how to stop it. You just try to keep the damage low.

I also think a lot about resiliency and reliability. We have 6,000 miles of line in a highly timbered region. A storm can hurt us. But we have new approaches to keeping outages contained. It’s expensive to maintain lines and infrastructure. Digital technology has given us more control over the circuits so we can be more efficient with closed loops, back feed when necessary and be up real quick. Keeping the power going is what we do.

Reliability is where technology really helps us out. We have much better mapping systems. Our systems are better at sensing and reporting outages. The technology for balancing loads is so much better.

Well, I also think about rate structures. We’re getting away from selling kilowatt-hours as the model. It seems to me that it is more than just cheap rates. I have been thinking that members will be willing to pay more for higher quality. I think the membership already is used to paying for levels or units of service, something like what we see in the telecommunications industry. Then they pay more if they exceed those levels. I think we may be moving to a model like that.