This is the second in a series of blogs from our Energy Savings team about member-owner engagement with electric cooperatives.
Electric cooperatives are unique in the utility world because they are democratically governed by their members. But what does that really mean? In many co-op service areas, less than 10% of membership attends annual meetings, where voting occurs for both board representatives and sometimes bylaw amendments.
Holston Electric (HEC), which serves 30,000 members in Tennessee’s Hawkins, Hamblen, and Greene counties, is one cooperative that defines engagement as more than just turnout to an annual meeting. From high-speed internet to herbicide spraying, the cooperative has been working to engage their membership on a range of policies and programs.
Broadband – Holston Connect
Broadband, more commonly known as high-speed internet, is a topic of interest amongst electric cooperatives looking to provide additional services to their members. Tennessee currently ranks 29th in the U.S. for broadband access. While only 2 percent of the state’s urban residents are without minimum coverage, a whopping 34 percent of rural residents are without this service. Last spring, the state passed the Tennessee Broadband Accessibility Act, which not only allowed electric cooperatives to be broadband providers, but also allocated $45 million of funding for broadband projects through grants and tax credits. According to the broadband legislation, increasing access to high speed internet will enhance education, advance agriculture, develop business, and improve healthcare access in previously underserved communities.
The need for broadband is especially felt in the Holston Electric service area, where four in 10 people are without any broadband access. With an understanding that the co-op would need 80% involvement for program feasibility, Holston put on a series of three community meetings on the subject, hosting a total of 3,000 members. At these events, co-op leadership expressed why they and other co-op members thought it was important for the co-op to provide broadband. They then described challenges and risks to taking on the new program and gave out surveys for direct member feedback.
Since then, the cooperative has been hard at work setting up their fully-owned, not-for-profit subsidiary, Holston Connect, which began construction in January and will provide broadband service to members who currently don’t have access. Michelle Simpson, member services director at Holston, explained this will be a challenging undertaking because it’s a whole new business with a whole new language. Ultimately, when it comes to broadband, she said, “we’re doing this for you [members] because you’ve asked us to do it.” A representative, member-driven broadband advisory committee is forming to serve as a resource and “sounding board” as the project progresses.
Herbicide Spraying – Opt-Out Policy
Open communication not only allows cooperative management to get information to members, it allows members to reach out and educate co-op leadership as well. In neighboring Powell Valley Electric Cooperative’s service area, power lines were sprayed with herbicides without notice, causing concerned members to speak out about the effects of this practice on agriculture and public health. Hearing these concerns, members of the Heritage Beekeepers of Hawkins County requested to speak with Holston’s board before their spraying season got underway.
Maintaining Holston’s 2,600-plus powerlines makes right-of-way clearance a year-round obstacle, and vegetation is the number-one cause of service interruptions. Although herbicide spraying is the most cost-effective method of controlling vegetation, Holston Electric’s Michelle Simpson says that “Holston Electric Cooperative knows there are organic farmers, beekeepers and harvesters in the region who might be negatively impacted by the use of herbicides in very close proximity to their operations.”
The co-op board met with its members in August to develop an opt-out policy that balances cost-effectiveness and the concerns of members who do not want chemical spray treatment on their properties. Becky Johnson, a resident of Rogersville, Tenn., member of Holston Electric, and vice president of the Heritage Beekeepers attended the meetings late last summer. She recalls her conversation with co-op leadership:
“Holston has the chance to partner with us, so that we can learn from one another and become an example throughout Tennessee for their cooperative work with the honey bees and their local club. That’s something that we as a club have always tried to do. It is our mission and goal to work with other entities and help educate and protect all things honey bee. You attack with honey, not vinegar, by showing people there is another way and that other way can benefit both. At the end of the day, it is about what is best for the bees and our environment, including its residents.”
Simpson adds that “The communication [the co-op] provided was well-received from our members and allowed us an opportunity to learn more about the operations and harvesting performed by local farmers.”
While the opt-out policy is finished for now, Simpson ensures that “when the need again arises to increase electric service reliability through herbicide application, Holston Electric Cooperative will reach out to our members. HEC plans to continue to develop a strong relationship with the members involved in the discussions.”
Those lines of communication are still open. The Holston Electric Cooperative Headquarters hosted the bee club Feb. 22 for their inspector class, where roughly 10 members became certified beekeepers, and an additional 30-40 residents attended to learn about the honeybees and for fellowship. Holston staff and board were also invited to join the Heritage Beekeepers at their first (hopefully annual!) local honey tasting on March 8 to taste some of the honey this policy will help protect.
Community engagement requires open communication
As we’ve learned in the case of Holston Electric, two-way communication is essential for a cooperative to truly engage membership in the decision-making process. This engagement has led to co-op programs and policies that will benefit communities served by Holston for years to come.
Cooperatives across the country are finding innovative ways to communicate with members and get them involved in decision-making. Some examples include Blue Ridge Energy’s telephone town halls in North Carolina, a 40-50 person member advisory council in Freeborn-Mower Cooperative in Minnesota, and Jay’s Discussion Days, an office hours model at Adams-Columbia Electric Cooperative in Wisconsin.
How does your electric cooperative open those channels?