Sixty years of power

Tue, 07/03/2007 - 3:39pm
By: Andrew Widener

When Michael Whiteside began working at Coweta-Fayette EMC in 1974, there were 12,000 meters in its service area; today there are around 70,000. Raised in Cochran, Georgia, about 40 miles southeast of Macon, he has witnessed, in a tenure highlighted by his becoming president and CEO in 1983, the sextupling of membership and the absorption of Coweta and Fayette counties into metropolitan Atlanta, a change that continues to revolutionize the landscape and diminish the erstwhile rural character. “The biggest difference in the past 20 years,” which has resulted from the transition from countryside to suburbia, is “all the underground [power lines] we've added…driven by all the subdivisions,” Whiteside noted. “Peachtree City is a good example.”

Atlanta seemed a world away on February 21, 1947 when the EMC opened for business with 686 members, having bought, with loans from the Rural Electrification Administration, power lines from Douglas County and Central Georgia EMCs. A contract negotiated that May arranged for the purchase of electricity from Georgia Power Company. Growth and modernization have been the modi operandi ever since. “When you figure all of the new meters we've added, all of the new commercial and industrial customers we've added, we've added technology to keep up,” Whiteside said. As he noted this, he mentioned that the EMC is preparing to initiate a two-year process of automating all of its meters in October of this year. “We can read all of our meters remotely,” he stated. “We won't have meter-readers any more. It just makes us more efficient and gives us more up-to-date information.”

The notion of efficiency as a guiding principle pervades the 53,000-square-foot headquarters in northern Coweta County. In a large room black plastic chairs form in several rough circles and the floor is contoured for partitions, a mobile hanging from the ceiling tiles between two retractable screens manages to purvey the company's mission with concision to the employees who frequently gather here. Reduction to slogans extolling efficiency is itself efficient and a hallmark of modern commerce. The words and their pictorial manifestations dangling from the mobile possessed an especial quality of comedic condescension: "Controlling Costs" is portrayed by a pair of scissors chopping through a dollar bill, "Improving Reliability" by a clock emblazoned with "Power," "Improving Revenue" by two people with rope straining to fell a tree, its branches populated by cash, and "Safety" by a hard hat with a bloated check mark on top.

Mary Ann Bell is the director of public relations who, after 33 years in a windowless office at the Newnan branch, has a second-story view of part of the 73-acre campus and enjoys going to the wellness center to exercise during her lunch break. Marcy Beidleman has for four years handled customer service, answering phone calls, emails, letters, and internet submissions. She said it is mostly quiet (unless children enchant themselves with the echo of their own voices) because “a lot of people don't know we're here” but that “traffic has picked up because of the annual meetings.”

The yearly gatherings of Coweta-Fayette EMC's members began in 1948. In August of that year, 9 percent of the membership (196 people) attended the meeting. These days turnout is in the several thousands, and the festivities, called Fun on the Midway, recall the timeless fairground amusements of the 1950s, when these meetings served as focal civic events in Newnan. Unfortunately there is another tradition contemporary residents of the EMC's purview are no longer allowed: the gold medallion, a distinction that once embellished the front doors of all members who had certifiably eschewed gas and fuel and gone “total electric.” Though there has not yet been created a similar honor pertaining to green power, earth-friendly options certainly seem to be the basket into which the EMC is placing its eggs. Around 30 percent of EMC members said in a survey conducted before the introduction of green power that they would be willing to pay a few dollars extra each month for the measure. The response so far has been participation of around 5 percent, which Whiteside euphemistically characterized as “not as great as we would have liked;” He continued, "As we think more about climate change and the other things that are going on in the U.S. about renewables, we'll start to get more participation in the programs.” Even so, in spite of what is apparent consumer ennui at the prospect of employing green power in their homes, Whiteside vowed to move forward.

The preponderance of Coweta and Fayette citizens will move forward with him, too, because of the Georgia Territorial Electric Service Act of 1973, which granted Coweta-Fayette EMC exclusive power rights to the area. (Newnan Utilities and Georgia Power have pockets of customers in the counties, and large customers generating more than 900 kilowatts may choose their provider.) There is an interesting motto at Coweta-Fayette EMC regarding its customer service: "If they had a choice," the unstated second part of this being, “they would choose us.” The motto seems untestable, but after 60 years of the EMC's success, the choice appears to have come back in the affirmative.

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