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It’s Electric! Rural Electrification in Iowa

National Archives and Records Administration
U.S. Department of Agriculture

When a storm knocks out power for a few hours, it's an inconvenience; if the outage lasts much longer it becomes a crisis.  However, not so long ago electricity was far from ubiquitous in Iowa.

Iowan Kieth Wirt was 10 years old when electricity came to his family’s farm in Panora. Like most households, the first appliance the Wirts purchased was a refrigerator, and soon after indoor plumbing.

“It was a change from going out," says Wirt. "Especially in the winter time, sitting on that cold seat privy that might have had a little snow on it. (At night) you usually tried to get a brother and sister to go along with you so you weren’t so scared.”

While U.S. cities and towns were connecting to the electric grid in the late 1880s and early 1890s, only about 10 percent of rural Americans had electricity by 1930. "It's very similar to the scenario we have today with the rural broadband issues, in that the power companies just couldn't see a profit margin in providing that infrastructure," says journalist Terri Queck-Matzie, author of "75 Year of Progress: The Farmers Electric Cooperative."

Thanks to loans provided through the New Deal's Rural Electrification Act, rural electric cooperatives (RECs) constructed the infrastructure necessary to channel wholesale power to farming communities across the country. 

The electricity revolutionized farm work. Now livestock water tanks were filled by electric pumps and barns had power for devices like electric milk machines and egg counters.

Credit National Archives and Records Administration / U.S. Department of Agriculture
U.S. Department of Agriculture
Mrs. Nolan Freeman of Albertville, Alabama takes her home’s monthly electric meter reading, in October 1965. The electricity is provided by the Marshall-Dekalb Electrical Co-Op.

"Urban populations were growing and those urban populations who couldn't produce their own food wanted affordable and safe food,” says Queck-Matzie. “So right at the time that farmers were expected to meet this incredible demand, the guys were returning home from the war and taking over the family farmers, and wanting to modernize...and electricity just fed all that.”

Today, RECs continue to bring inovation to rural Iowa with renewable energies.  In reponse to a member's request, about five years ago the small Farmers Electric Cooperative (FEC) in Kalona, started providing the option of solar energy.

“In southeast Iowa, we don’t have the wind resources that they have in central and western Iowa,” explains Warren McKenna, FEC's general manager. “Solar does as well as wind and we don’t have to climb the tower.”

solar panels
Credit Warren McKenna / Farmers Electric Coop
Farmers Electric Coop
The Farmers Electric Coop's solar garden in Frytown. There are currently 512 modules or panels, FEC plans to install another 40 this summer.

McKenna says that about 20 percent of FEC 650 costumers either own solar modules or purchase solar energy or renewable in some way. Though it takes about seven years to recoup the cost of a module, the solar energy provides a long-term saving to members.

Active RECs are also important for the survival of rural communities.  With fewer people farming, the electic coops make it possible to recruit and sustain industry.  Often an REC will even be a part of the recruitment process as a new factory becomes a new REC member.

Looking to the future, as RECs continue to change and adopt new energy technologies, these coops will continue to play an integral part in rural Iowa.

Charity Nebbe is the host of IPR's Talk of Iowa