For 75 years, Flathead Electric Cooperative has played a fundamental role in modernizing the valley. Beginning in the 1930s, the cooperative’s rural electrification efforts, from improving irrigation for farmers to connecting pastoral homes to the world of electricity, helped decide the direction and pace of the region’s growth. The cooperative brought light to the countryside.
Jim Sutherland has worked at Flathead Electric for the majority of those 75 years, through snowstorms, through floods and through industry changes that have seemed just as dizzying as any weather event. In February, Sutherland announced his retirement after five decades at Flathead Electric, a career that began on May 1, 1963.
Sutherland first applied for a lineman job at Flathead Electric in 1959 when he was a 19-year-old newlywed and transplant from Minnesota. Though it took a few years for him to get accepted for the job, once his apprenticeship began in 1963 it was the fulfillment of a dream he had harbored since he first saw a lineman working on a transformer as a young boy.
Sutherland, a man who has dedicated his life to electricity yet still doesn’t own a television, believes the cooperative deserves a good birthday party. Likewise, on the cooperative’s 75th anniversary, his fellow employees know Sutherland, 71, deserves a good farewell party. His life story is intrinsically intertwined with the cooperative’s own life story.
“He’s the one constant in our industry – everything else has changed but Jim has always been here,” Ken Sugden, the cooperative’s general manager, said.
In 1935, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt created the Rural Electrification Administration as part of the New Deal. Two years later in August of 1937, Roosevelt signed the Bonneville Project Act, giving birth to the Bonneville Power Administration and paving the way for rural electrification to spread across the Northwest. Flathead Power Company, the predecessor of Flathead Electric Cooperative, was established that same year.
Flathead Power Company’s first 82 miles of power line were energized in 1938, providing electricity to 117 farms. Much of the work was done by hand, with ranchers and farmers pulling miles of copper cables and digging holes for the power poles. By the late 1940s, most rural homes in the area had electricity.
Until 1998, Flathead Electric Cooperative was a rural electricity provider, distributing power to members located outside of towns across the region. But with the acquisition of PacifiCorp in 1998, the cooperative began providing electricity to members in Kalispell, Whitefish and other towns, in addition to the rural outlying areas.
Today Flathead Electric is the largest cooperative in the state and the second-largest utility behind NorthWestern Energy. The cooperative has over 60,000 member accounts. Those initial 82 miles of power line back in the 1938 have grown to nearly 4,000 miles today.
The energy landscape looks nothing like it did 75 years ago, but the cooperative’s mission remains the same: seeking out inexpensive power sources and distributing the energy at affordable rates to members. And for 75 years, that has meant purchasing the bulk of its power from Bonneville Power Administration, a federal agency that sells low-cost electricity to preference customers like Flathead Electric.
But last October, BPA began capping the amount of low-cost power it sells to Flathead Electric, which means the cooperative must seek out other energy sources to meet future load growth. Knowing the BPA cap was on its way, Flathead Electric started years ago to look into ways to generate its own energy.
In June of 2009, the cooperative began operating a power plant at the county landfill that converts methane emanating from trash into usable energy. Last year, the plant’s production level was increased.
Flathead Electric has also entered into a power-purchase agreement with the city of Whitefish to operate a long-abandoned hydroelectric plant. Additionally, the cooperative announced a power-purchase agreement in February with the F.H. Stoltze Land and Lumber Company to construct a biomass-fueled electric generation facility at Stoltze’s mill site outside of Columbia Falls.
And last December, Flathead Electric began exploratory drilling in the Hot Springs area to investigate the possibilities of geothermal energy. That project, the only of its kind in the state, is ongoing.
“It starts with our board,” Sugden said. “We’re constantly looking everywhere we can for those projects in our service territory rather than go buy wind in eastern Montana.”
None of this is to say that Flathead Electric and BPA are parting ways. Rather, both sides are intent on continuing what has so far been a fruitful 75-year partnership. Sugden said to meet future energy needs that exceed the cap, in addition to the various alternative energy projects, BPA has agreed to purchase market power and sell it to Flathead Electric, rather than the cooperative having to venture out into the market by itself as a small fish in a very large pond.
“We’re not big enough to play in the market, so we can have Bonneville do that for us,” Sugden said.
On March 17, BPA’s administrator, Stephen Wright, spoke at Flathead Electric Cooperative’s annual members meeting, which doubled as a 75-year anniversary celebration for both the cooperative and the federal agency. The occasion’s significance was not lost on Sugden – 75 years is a long time for any marriage.
“It’s special for us and it’s special for Bonneville,” Sugden said.
Last week, Sutherland was greeted by everybody he passed inside Flathead Electric’s Kalispell headquarters. He was technically retired but he didn’t act like it. His office still had scattered belongings and he took business calls on his cell phone. He looked busy. One got the distinct feeling that Sutherland won’t be nearly as good at retirement as he was at his job.
Over the course of his five decades at the cooperative, Sutherland worked his way up from apprentice lineman to operations manager where he oversaw all of the crews and equipment. He retired as special projects manager. He has always liked to stay busy.
“Jim’s had a great career here and he’s a great guy,” Sugden said. “He would give you the shirt off his back.”
And now, after 50 years, Sutherland is transitioning into a life without Flathead Electric. But, without a doubt, he’ll stop by headquarters every once in awhile. He loves it there.
“People ask me how I could stay this long,” Sutherland said. “I don’t know if you call it finding your stride, but I never had a bad day here.”
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