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North Carolina Electric Cooperative Aims To Make New Technologies Accessible To All

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

The U.S. is making plans for a massive shift from fossil fuels to clean energy. But with those plans come worries that the changes won't be equitable, that wealthy people will get their electric cars and energy efficient technology while the poor will get left behind. In rural North Carolina, NPR's Dan Charles visited one man who's trying to keep that from happening, carrying on a legacy of the New Deal.

DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: Alvin Morrison was a young man in the 1930s, just married, farming in central North Carolina.

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ALVIN MORRISON: We wanted to have electricity, but it was not available.

CHARLES: He told his story in 1984, part of an oral history collection. A small town seven miles away had electricity, so three men from Morrison's community went to talk to the electric company there, Duke Power. The company's executives said they could extend their power lines out to a main road close to some of the farmers. But the delegation had a question.

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MORRISON: They ask them, will you serve the entire community? They said no. And the wealthier farmers living on the road who could have gotten it would not accept. They said if you don't serve the entire community, we won't have it.

CHARLES: So instead, Morrison and his neighbors voted for something new, a rural electric cooperative owned by its members, jumpstarted with loans from the government. Then power lines arrived, electric lights, radios, indoor plumbing.

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MORRISON: It's almost indescribable, but it just gave us new visions into what we thought we could do, what we would be able to do.

CHARLES: When Morrison was helping to organize this cooperative, he says, a local businessman told him, what you're doing is socialism.

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MORRISON: And I replied, if it is socialism, it is good socialism. And I like it.

CHARLES: Rural electric cooperatives are still around, hundreds of them. In eastern North Carolina, there's Roanoke Electric Cooperative. It serves small towns where main streets sometimes are lined with empty storefronts. Twenty percent of the people here earn less than the poverty level. The Cooperative's president is Curtis Wynn.

CURTIS WYNN: It's an important entity, in an area we're serving where other people have decided to abandon.

CHARLES: When Wynn was a teenager in Florida's panhandle, he thought working for the local electric co-op looked a lot better than what he'd been doing - cleaning big silos to store peanuts. He took over as president of Roanoke Electric 24 years ago, the first African American to run a rural electric cooperative anywhere in the country. And he's on a mission to help his neighbors experience today's new visions.

WYNN: I can see a day when this co-op will have almost every vehicle here will be an electric vehicle.

CHARLES: There's one electric car here now, a Nissan Leaf, hooked up to a special kind of charger that can send power both ways. It can charge the battery or use the battery to power Roanoke's headquarters. Imagine a fleet of electric buses hooked up this way, Wynn says, a huge electricity reservoir storing solar when the sun is shining and releasing it after dark.

WYNN: So we're looking ahead to the day that we will be able to draw on that power.

CHARLES: Pretty cutting-edge stuff here in...

WYNN: Ahoskie, N.C. Yes, sir. Yeah.

CHARLES: Inside the warehouse next door, there are racks of equipment for Wynn's latest passion - connecting homes to high-speed fiber optic Internet. This is just like back in the New Deal, Wynn says, stringing wires to people who need them.

WYNN: No one else would do it then. And no one else seems to want to do it now. And here we are again.

CHARLES: Another big initiative - the cooperative's paying for energy-saving upgrades in its members' homes like Calvin Bond's double-wide mobile home on a gravel road outside the town of Windsor.

CALVIN BOND: They replaced all of their light bulbs with energy efficient bulbs.

CHARLES: Yeah, the LEDs, yeah.

BOND: It's all of those bulbs that they've replaced.

CHARLES: Bond's electric bill used to get up to $500 a month. He was paying hundreds more for propane heating in the winter. Not anymore.

BOND: Everything underneath the house has been replaced - new ductwork, new crossovers and this nice new unit here.

CHARLES: So this is the heat pump?

BOND: Yes.

CHARLES: So this is now your heating and cooling?

BOND: Heating and cooling, yes.

CHARLES: It's cutting his bills so much Bond can split the savings with Roanoke Electric and they both come out ahead. That's what Curtis Wynn usually emphasizes talking about these programs, that they save money, improve quality of life. But heat pumps on electric cars and fast Internet also are part of most plans for getting off fossil fuels, fighting climate change.

WYNN: Yes, that's exactly what we're doing because it's a sustainable model, and it has - above all, it has an inclusive component to it.

CHARLES: There's this myth, Wynn says, that people with modest incomes don't have much use for electric cars and LED lighting and the latest heating systems. He says we try to dispel that myth all the time.

Dan Charles, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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