Front Porch Blog

Pushing for democracy in electric co-ops

Thirteen electric cooperatives provide electricity for more than 1 in 6 Virginians, including many in rural areas.

Communities tackling utility reform encounter a classic “David and Goliath” scenario. Even at the local level, grassroots groups pushing for reform can expect to embark upon years-long campaigns that pit them against the political power and financial capital of entrenched corporations. Advocates for reform must navigate a complex regulatory landscape that isn’t exactly user-friendly. And yet, more and more people from around the country are up to this challenge. Communities everywhere, including in Virginia, stand to benefit from the work of those committed to positive change.

A recent success story comes from grassroots reformers of the largest electric cooperative in Virginia. Electric cooperatives are unique among utilities — and present a special opportunity for community control: co-ops are actually owned by the people who purchase the electricity they sell. We call these customers member-owners.

Repower REC, a determined group of member-owners, has advocated for transparency and good governance at Rappahannock Electric Cooperative (REC) for years. According to the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, cooperatively owned utilities like REC should put their members’ needs first by adhering to principles of good governance, including democratic member-control (more on that here). Holding board meetings open to the co-op’s member-owners is one way for a co-op to ensure it meets the national group’s guidelines for good governance.

Open board meetings and publicly posted meeting minutes enable member-owners to scrutinize decisions made by a co-op’s board and staff.

And yet, until January of this year, the REC board has operated in an opaque, behind-closed-doors manner. Its meetings are closed to member-owners, and the minutes from those meetings could only be accessed after member-owners completed a cumbersome application process.

This year, REC took a baby step towards true democratic member control by posting minutes from its January and February board meetings online for the first time. Advocates with Repower REC have actively pushed the co-op to make its board meeting minutes easily accessible to member-owners for several years, as those meetings are where important financial decisions that impact member-owners are made.

For example, according to the January minutes, the REC board discussed how nearly $5 million in CARES Act funding would be disbursed to qualifying member-owners. The minutes provide a good example of what goes on behind the closed doors of REC’s board meetings — and show how board conversations and decisions are directly related to member-owner concerns.

At its closed January meeting, REC board and staff also discussed seeking a waiver from the moratorium on disconnections for electric bill nonpayment related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Member-owners of REC need to be included in conversations that determine who could face utility disconnections and why, especially during the public health and economic crises!

Much remains to be done at Rappahannock Electric Cooperative, but the member-owners of Repower REC are up to the task, remaining committed to additional reforms. Appalachian Voices, Repower REC and the group’s many supporters believe that member-owners of any electric cooperative should be able to:

  • Attend board meetings and hear board discussions firsthand; and
  • Provide input on co-op issues through a public comment process.

This is by no means unheard of. A few electric cooperatives in the Southeast do provide these opportunities to their member-owners, although they often must be pressured to do so. For example, Powell Valley Member Voices successfully pressured Powell Valley Electric Cooperative in southwest Virginia and eastern Tennessee to instate similar governance and transparency reforms to those Repower REC seeks. The co-op ultimately opened its board meetings to member-owners and engaged in education related to member-owner issues and co-op management.

Our energy systems should serve the needs of our communities, without imposing burdensome costs on people or undue harms to the environment. Co-op member-owners should have the opportunity for a seat at the table to help determine how to ensure a just allocation of the benefits and costs related to their community’s power needs. Democractic member control of rural co-ops, including through direct participation in board deliberations, is an essential first step.

Email me at emily [at] appvoices.org to learn how you can help!

A transplant to Southwestern Virginia from the Midwest, Emily engages with communities and works to build a more equitable and sustainable energy system as our Virginia Energy Democracy Field Coordinator.


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