Story By Melissa Slaven Warren 7
Contributed photography

Brunswick Electric Membership Corporation Marks its 75th Anniversary by Reflecting on its History and People

For 75 years, Brunswick Electric Membership Corporation (BEMC) has served its co-op members by providing safe, reliable, affordable and environmentally responsible electric power. This year BEMC celebrates its noteworthy anniversary by taking a look back at the beginnings of its business and the extraordinary people responsible for creating one of the state’s largest electric co-ops. From the dispatch center staff to the dedicated linemen and outstanding customer-service personnel, the employees are integral to the history and the continued success of BEMC.

Just how long is 75 years in the electric power industry? It’s difficult to readily put that many years into perspective until you consider all that’s changed at BEMC over the last 75 years. In 1939 wooden poles were installed by hand — sometimes with the assistance of a mule. Meter reading was recorded by pen and paper. Each household paid a membership fee of five dollars. One hundred and thirty-eight miles of line serviced the area, and 588 customers in Brunswick and Columbus counties were members.

Today BEMC serves more than 86,000 meters and 6,500 miles of line in four counties and has evolved into the business it is today with digger-derrick utility trucks to dig, lift and set poles, automated meter reading, and GPS technology to accurately locate every piece of equipment in the field. Its dispatch center and mapping system is one of the most advanced of all North Carolina electric co-ops. BEMC was among the first co-ops in the nation to offer a prepaid power program, and it serves as a model for others. That’s a lot of progress, and more than Dr. E.D. “Doc” Bishop, BEMC’s first general manager, probably ever imagined.

A Brief History

Following the creation of the Rural Electrification Administration (REA), signed into law by Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1935, rural communities like Brunswick County could form their own electric cooperatives. Prior to the REA Act, utility companies, which supplied electric power to most of the nation’s consumers, rarely ran electric lines to isolated farmsteads because of the expense.

Through the REA Act, low-interest federal loans were made available for member-owned cooperatives that then purchased electricity on a wholesale basis and distributed it to rural communities using their own power lines. These electric cooperatives became private, member-owned, independent electric utility businesses, organized under the Cooperative Rochdale Principles; to this day they are fully accountable to their consumer members.

The first lines of BEMC were energized in Brunswick County in December 1939 and in Columbus County in the early part of 1940. These lines served a total of approximately 588 members in both counties. Bishop traveled the countryside to convince people of the value of electricity and the concept of a locally owned and operated electric cooperative. He told them how affordable electricity could improve their homes and businesses and increase the economic competitiveness of their family farms.

The BEMC cooperative we know today traces its successful path from the initial line construction in 1939 to becoming the 35th largest electric co-op in the nation.

• August 1939 – A contract with Melvin F. Burgess of Boone was approved for the initial construction of 138 miles of line, 113 in Brunswick County and 25 in Columbus County. A metering point was established with Tidewater Power Company at Belville, and three 50 KVA transformers were installed for a substation.

• December 1939–early 1940 – The first lines of BEMC were energized in Brunswick and Columbus counties, serving approximately 588 members in both counties.

• 1960 – BEMC serviced more than 10,000 members. In 1961 a new 10,000 KVA substation was installed to supply power over the 69 KV transmission line to Shallotte and Midway. A new 3,750 KVA substation was installed in Columbus County in 1964, bringing the number of substations owned by BEMC to 10.

• 1968 – The Oak Island office was opened. The same year CP&L announced their proposed nuclear generating plant to be located in Brunswick County. The following year BEMC purchased all electrical facilities on Caswell Beach.

• 1981–84 – BEMC expanded the meter reading program to 100 percent of the membership. The first Load Management Switch, which allows BEMC to monitor the amount of power being used and work at maximum efficiency, was installed in the service are on Sunset Beach.

• 1986 – The Rural Consumer Services Corporation (RCSC), a subsidiary of BEMC, was established as an economic development program for Brunswick and Columbus counties. Over the next few years, RCSC set up three Business Incubators to facilitate new and expanding business.

• June 1991 – Bricklanding Substation comes on line, the first built by BEMC employees.

• 2001 – BEMC awarded a $6.2 million mitigation grant from FEMA to convert 88 miles of overhead line to underground in highly vulnerable coastal areas.

• 2008 – BEMC members are served by a total of 41 substations (10 transmission/switching and 31 distribution stations).

• 2008 – BEMC completed conversion of its meters to an AMR (Automated Meter Reading) system, allowing for remote reading of meters, improved service for members and collection of valuable data for monitoring and forecasting demand for electricity.

People Make the Difference

For 75 years BEMC has worked hard to build a culture that embodies commitment to community, respect, innovation, safety and dedication. Whether it’s getting the lights back on after a storm or helping a customer figure out their power usage, working at BEMC means redefining the customer-service experience.

The most visible employees of the cooperative are the linemen. Whether they’re repairing damaged lines in sweltering summer temperatures or cutting away fallen tree limbs in frigid winter storms, they’re out there 365 days a year working at dangerous heights with high voltages. Not only are they responsible for installing services and setting poles, they’re constantly maintaining a clear path near the lines, which is critical to service integrity and functionality.

“A big part of what our linemen do is maintaining lines
and cutting right-of-way,” says Holbrook. “They remove trees, bushes and other debris to make the service more efficient, and it makes it much faster to get the power back on should it go out.“

Whereas the linemen are on the front line making use of the latest equipment and technologies to increase efficiency, the customer service representatives who work behind the scenes are just as valuable to the cooperative experience. For all the technical innovations BEMC has implemented to increase its productivity through the years, one thing that hasn’t changed is the live voice that answers the phone when members call the main office during regular business hours.

“It’s the personal experience that members want,” says Holbrook. “ That’s what hasn’t changed in the last 75 years. Having someone answer the phone instead of sending members through a voice-automated call tree is a conscious choice.”

Stewards of the Community

Community involvement is a core commitment at BEMC. Being a good steward for members’ resources and a good neighbor means appreciating what’s important to the communities they serve. BEMC provides a multitude of grant and scholarship opportunities annually through The Community Grants program, which has funded hundreds of projects over the years within its service area. BEMC also offers Bright Ideas grants to teachers, now in its 20th year, and the membership-supported, donation-based campaign Warm Homes, Warm Hearts, a heating-assistance program for neighbors in need.

BEMC also encourages volunteerism and community-service projects in which employees give back to their local communities. Many of the employees serve on the local Girl Scout Council, charity fundraisers, chamber of commerce boards, Rotary Clubs and so forth.

On the heels of the Great Depression, and with World War II on the horizon, the year 1939 brought significant changes to Brunswick and surrounding counties, the most impactful being the electrification of the farmlands. Brunswick Electric Membership Corporation’s 75th Anniversary is not simply a date in time, but a celebration of the area’s great cultural innovation, legacy and community.

Sponsored by Signature Wealth