2020 was without a doubt a challenging year. The impact from this pandemic certainly affected us all and it will undoubtedly bring about a new normal as we move forward. However, it’s time to move on to the next chapter in this story even if there is some lingering carry-over, and your cooperative is committed to helping pave the way.
To us, this process starts with providing you reliable, dependable, and affordable electric energy. During this pandemic, electricity became the essential life blood in our daily lives when we all too often were forced to do everything from home. Keeping the lights on has never been more important and I would like to thank and commend our employees for their efforts. Every day they came to work or were actively on call to ensure the system was maintained and the power was flowing to your homes and businesses. Despite all the challenges, your cooperative had one of its most successful years. Sales remained solid and very consistent with 2018 and 2019. Operating margins were up to $914,800 due primarily to reductions in wholesale power costs. Capital credits of $864,000 were returned to our members during the spring and fall of last year. In addition, your cooperative added more miles of line and met the needs of more new members than we have in nearly 15 years, while keeping our total number of outage hours down to the lowest level in three years.
Another important step in moving on to the next chapter is recognizing our underdeveloped and underserved areas. In the 1930s an example of this would have been the availability of central station electric energy in rural America. Today, the rural areas of our country are facing a new infrastructure deficit: broadband internet access. If left unchanged, this will have a huge impact on our quality of life and our ability to compete economically. Just think about how things have changed in the way we communicate, teach our children, and even receive entertainment today and you will see the influence of the internet. Throughout 2020 and during the pandemic the internet became even more important because in some cases it was our only link to the outside world.
That’s why your cooperative has decided to help eliminate this information divide and bring broadband internet service to northeast Indiana. The first step in this process was the acquisition of the Steuben County Community Foundation’s dark fiber network commonly referred to as iMAN. The terms of the transaction were agreed to in October 2020 and your cooperative retained ownership of the asset this Jan. 4. This 200-mile network of fiber optic cable will help to facilitate and ultimately become a springboard to our Fiber to the Home (FTTH) network we plan to build over the over the next three to four years. Once complete every Steuben County REMC member will have access to high-speed internet service. It should meet our region’s needs for generations and it will be operated under the same not-for-profit business model, commitment to service and fair pricing as you have come to expect with our electric service.
We plan to begin making necessary changes to our poles so they can accept the additional weight and loads from the FTTH network this summer and begin building phase 1 of the network on the west side of our service territory this fall. Phase 2 is scheduled to begin in the winter of 2022 and cover the north and lakes region, with phase 3 and 4 following in a clockwise rotation around our service area in the following year. If everything goes well with the availability of resources, internet service with speeds up to a gigabit will be available in the area and become the new norm.
When we consider the difficulties we all faced last year, it is easy to see why our optimism for the future could wane. Times have been hard and we still face challenges, but there is hope and we are getting nearer to the light at the end. In fact, if we continue to work together, we believe that the next chapter in our cooperative’s story is upon us. It will bring us a future and quality of life that will be as bright as ever.