In 2020, United experienced a notable spurt in electric growth
as more and more people staked their claims in the Lone Star State.
United Cooperative Services’ electric business experienced 3.3 percent growth in connected meters between 2019 and 2020—its greatest rate of growth in nearly 20 years, a recent study by the co-op found.
Meter counts are up even more this year, and current projections track the growth rate increasing to 4.5 percent between 2020 and 2021.
The national median growth rate for electric co-ops ranges between less than 1 percent to 2 percent in most years, and 2019’s growth rate was 1.1 percent.
The recent influx of more residents into Texas weighs heavily into the equation of the increasing growth rate, according to United CEO Cameron Smallwood.
“A growth rate above 3 percent in a year for any utility is pretty remarkable,” Smallwood said. “And we’ve been able to handle that level of growth in part because United has always had an active and engaged electrical engineering and planning department. Throughout the year, they are heavily involved in the engineering and design process for each individual development or large commercial load. Then, on an annual basis, United meets internally and with its power provider to ensure that adequate infrastructure is, or will be, in place to handle the growth.”
It’s no secret that the Lone Star State ranks first with the largest raw population gains according to U.S. Census estimates in May. The bureau projected Texas residents increased by 373,965 between 2019 and 2020, which was the biggest spike in population for the state since 2017 and a bigger raw gain than any other state. Residential growth since 2010 entitled the state to two new seats in the U.S. House of Representatives.
The largest population gains from 2010-2020 occurred in the DFW Metroplex and Houston metro areas, according to the May estimates, which used 2010 as a baseline and calculated current births, deaths and migrations. These metro regions outpaced growth in any other cities in the United States, according to an article in the Houston Chronicle.
“The growth that United is currently experiencing is more widespread across the service area and at a higher rate than we’ve experienced in the recent past,” said Landy Bennett, chief administrative officer. “There’s a percentage of new people moving into our area from other states—most likely influenced by the economy. They came prior to the pandemic and are arriving now even as we come out of the pandemic. The other percentage live in the DFW Metroplex area and want to move out of the urban atmosphere while still living close enough to their work and access to the entertainment and shopping opportunities in the DFW area.”
Jeff Pannell, key account/business development manager, said that while the eastern portion of United’s service territory received the most growth, as it has done historically, the growth wasn’t limited to that area. Central and western portions of the service territory also received growth, especially in areas near Granbury and Stephenville.
“I think low interest rates are one of the biggest things keeping this new construction trend alive, because it hasn’t slowed down, even with the price of materials shooting up,” Pannell said. “The Chisholm Trail Tollway has also been a big driver and helped to open up more land to development. I think a lot of people want to get out of the dense metropolitan areas. They want a more rural lifestyle and smaller school districts that our central and western service territory offers. So, they are moving farther away from there. At the same time, the metropolitan areas are expanding the suburbs outwards and into our service area.
While residential development has taken the lion’s share of the meter growth, Pannell said commercial and industrial development has also increased due in part to local economic development teams taking active roles in pursuing and attracting larger companies looking to invest in their business and industrial parks that were strategically planned for this purpose.
“Cities within our service territory are doing a good job in recruiting big companies to pack up and consider making a new home in their communities,” he said.
The recent growth doesn’t come as a complete surprise, Pannell said. The co-op was communicating with land developers in 2012 who had large neighborhood projects in the works.
“We knew there was going to be an uptick in growth someday,” he said.
“But to this level and going on for this long a period of time? No. While it’s true there are a lot of factors that could cause a plateau or slowdown in growth, right now, on paper, it doesn’t appear to be slowing down. Developers are continuing to purchase properties for residential development. That has not slowed down, and there is no end in sight.”
The growth of petroleum interests in 2012 also played a role not only in helping the co-op to reckon with rapid-growth periods, but also to create the environment internally for employees to handle greater demand.
Success is based largely upon effective communication in a complete team effort that involves multiple departments being on the same page in the planning, design and operational processes, Pannell said.
Members of multiple departments stage regular meetings throughout the month to ensure everyone understands his or her role in meeting the demand. Each new development has its unique challenges, whether it be other utilities being installed at the same time, time frames to consider and developing a personal relationship with each project manager wanting to be served by United.
“We have to customize our approach each time while also maintaining our consistency to achieve excellence,” he said. “We have a reputation for being easy to work with. That goes back to multiple points of contact and the way our processes are lined out. It’s how we deal with bumps in the road that come up.
“We are proactive in our approach and address issues as they arise. And communications is always key.”