Martin Lowery believes cooperatives are responsible for what might be greatest engineering feat of the 20th century in the United States: bringing electricity to millions of rural homes after private companies refused to provide the infrastructure to extend power lines into the heart of the country.

Lowery is the Executive Vice President for Member and Association Relations for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, which represents the interest of its 900 member cooperatives. “Almost 75% of the geography of the United States is served by electric cooperatives,” he said. Back in the 1930s, he explained, private, investor-owned companies were unwilling to invest in the infrastructure needed to bring electricity to the vast swathes of rural America without power. Instead, the New Deal created cooperatives to bring electricity (and telephone service) to rural areas.

What Lowery calls “the cooperatives’ can-do spirit” that brought electricity to the American countryside has continued, and is now being applied to solutions for clean energy. He believes that technology offers the solution to getting the balance between environmental concerns and keeping bills affordable. And, he says, cooperatives are leading the way in research, energy efficiency and innovation. “We’ve always been in the business of technology solutions,” he explained.

The NRECA believes that the US needs an “all-of-the-above” approach towards energy supply, with a mix of coal, renewables, nuclear power and natural gas. Only through the inclusion of coal can the NRECA’s member electric cooperatives ensure that electricity bills stay affordable for their 42 million members, says the association. “We believe that the mix has to be there, especially as we continue to have major economic issues in rural America,” said Lowery. “But that doesn’t mean we’re not looking at clean coal solutions, ways of utilizing carbon production, ways of reducing mercury emissions. We have to have continuing improvements.”

He also said there had been a major trend, particularly over the past 12 to 18 months, in small, community-based projects for renewable energy like solar and wind. “This trend is being led by the electric cooperatives,” he said. “Instead of trying to deal with installing your own rooftop solar panels, you can invest in panels which are run by the cooperative, for which you receive a return or a rebate on your electricity bill.”

Lowery gave the example of the Wright-Hennepin Electric Cooperative, in Rockford, Minnesota, which opened the WH Solar Community in early September. For just $917, investors can own their own solar panel, giving them clean power and lowering their monthly bills, all without having to deal with the hassle of installation and maintenance. “For example, they don’t have to worry about insurance coverage,” said Lowery. “Suppose you have a big hailstorm? It’s all insured by the cooperative.

He said that unlike in the UK or Germany, where renewable energy cooperatives are currently being set up, because of its unique history the United States already has the electric cooperative infrastructure already in place, making it easy to implement this kind of community-owned renewable energy project. He believes that cooperatives are leading the way towards a greener, yet still affordable, energy future in a way that private companies are not. “An investor-owned utility’s main concern is its return on its investment,” he said. “While a cooperative is trying to do what’s right for its members.”