SCC filing challenges Rappahannock Electric Cooperative’s effort to block member-proposed reforms

A filing with the State Corporation Commission last month shines some light on the workings of Virginia rural electric cooperatives, or at least one of them. It also raises an important question about this often-overlooked sector of the commonwealth’s electric distribution system. Electric co-ops are supposed to operate democratically, but do they really? And what happens when they don’t?

Three longtime member-owners of Rappahannock Electric Cooperative (REC), one of whom is me, filed the recent petition. The other two petitioners are Brigadier General John C. Levasseur (U.S. Army Reserves, Retired), and Dr. Michael F. Murphy. REC is one of the largest electric co-ops in the nation. General Levasseur served on REC’s board of directors for more than three years. I didn’t know these two fellow co-op members until last year. We’ve each traveled separate paths that led us to the same conclusion—democracy and transparency are too often practiced more in name than in substance at REC.

We found board practices and maneuvering designed to keep REC members from seeing how the board itself effectively controls board election outcomes. We found board practices that keep co-op members from learning enough about board members and prospective board candidates to make an informed decision when voting in board elections. And we’ve seen a board culture that favors a go-along-to-get-along attitude over asking tough questions of management and looking out for consumers. More details on how REC and its board thwart transparency and democracy are available on the Repower REC website.

Our SCC petition asks the commission to determine that REC’s board of directors is improperly blocking our effort to propose bylaw amendments for consideration by our fellow co-op members. Virginia law and REC’s bylaws explicitly authorize individual co-op members to submit proposed bylaw amendments for a vote by the full co-op membership.

The three of us are co-founders of Repower REC, a campaign to promote genuine transparency and democracy at our co-op. Our three proposed bylaw amendments would require REC to

  •     annually disclose each of its nine board members’ total compensation;
  •     allow REC members to observe the co-op’s board meetings, in person or online; and
  •     make a clarifying change to the proxy ballot form REC uses for board elections.

REC’s lawyer Charles W. Payne Jr., writing on behalf of the co-op’s board, advised us that the board will not allow us to submit the proposed amendments for a membership vote. He said the proposed bylaw amendments were not made in good faith, and would violate REC’s bylaws. One wonders how a bylaw amendment, which after all is supposed to change the bylaws, could do anything but “violate” the existing bylaws. Payne didn’t explain the basis for his lack-of-good-faith allegation. Presumably these matters will be clarified as the SCC case proceeds.

In recent years a number of electric co-ops around the nation have faced challenges from co-op members seeking to address democracy and transparency issues. In some instances bylaws have been changed and entrenched co-op boards have been replaced as co-op members re-asserted their rights, re-established transparency and true democratic control, and in many cases uncovered the mismanagement of cooperative resources. Often the old board members had served for many decades without real accountability to co-op members. Three people have been on REC’s board for 20 years or more, and two of those three have been on for well over 30 years. Last year two other REC board members died in office, having been on the board for 35 and 40 years.

The essence of the cooperative form of business is democratic control, with fair elections and meaningful member-owner participation in governance. REC acknowledges this principle on its website. The executive editor of REC’s member magazine Cooperative Living, Richard G. Johnstone, Jr., even advised REC members a few years ago that their “vote on changes or additions to bylaws that govern the utility they own” is perhaps one of the most important aspects of democratic control at an electric co-op. Johnstone should know. He is president and CEO of the Virginia, Maryland, and Delaware Association of Electric Cooperatives.

But in Virginia it’s not clear that any regulator or law-enforcement agency or the General Assembly regularly monitors electric co-ops to ensure that they’re living up to the requirement embodied in Virginia law and federal tax law that co-ops must operate democratically with fair elections. This despite the fact that electric co-ops have monopoly status and receive favorable regulatory, financial, and tax treatment based on the assumption that they are democratic.

A 2008 U.S. Senate hearing focused on undemocratic practices and serious mismanagement and corruption at rural electric co-ops, focusing in particular on Texas-based Pedernales Electric Cooperative, the nation’s largest. A Texas state legislator testified that “without transparency [at an electric co-op] there is no meaningful local control.” A second witness, a leader of the effort to reform the co-op, said “[t]ransparency and openness, combined with fair elections leading to reduced director tenure, could have prevented many of the abuses we suffered at Pedernales.”

There’s also an important role for the press in monitoring electric co-ops’ democracy, or lack thereof. At the U.S. Senate hearing a congressman cited the “outstanding reporting of Margaret Newkirk of the Atlanta Journal Constitution and of Claudia Grisales of the Austin American Statesman chronicling the abuses of Georgia and Texas co-ops.”

Yet here in Virginia only one of the many newspapers distributed in REC’s service territory has thus far reported on the REC board’s effort to block a member vote on the proposed bylaw amendments. That account is in the respected but tiny Rappahannock News, widely read in Rappahannock County, but not elsewhere in REC’s 22-county service area. To its credit, the new nonprofit online publication Virginia Mercury published Robert Zullo’s account of the SCC filing. But many media outlets that seemingly cover Dominion Energy’s every move often ignore the electric co-ops.

As the SCC matter proceeds, it will be interesting to see what arguments REC advances in support of its claim that proposed bylaw amendments somehow improperly “violate” existing bylaws, and the co-op board’s claim that amendments to improve transparency about board compensation, board meetings, and election ballots are made in bad faith.

Even more interesting to observe will be the SCC’s analysis of the matter, and whether state legislators and the press begin to pay attention to whether genuine democracy is practiced in Virginia’s electric co-ops. Those co-ops all love to extoll their supposed democratic governance when seeking favorable treatment in Richmond or Washington D.C. But not all rural electric co-ops live up to their high-minded principles.

Seth Heald has been an REC member-owner for ten years. He is a retired lawyer and has a master of science degree in energy policy and climate.

 

Basic change in utility business and regulation is inevitable: Advanced energy is coming to all utilities, like it or not.

Photo credit: Sierra Club

Photo credit: Sierra Club

Occasionally I ask other people to write for this blog, not merely because I am lazy, but also because energy policy is such a broad topic that I sometimes overlook new developments and perspectives. This week guest blogger Jane Twitmyer takes a step back from the battle over our energy future to point out that the battlefield itself is shifting under our feet—a fact which, if ignored, could cost utility customers dearly.  –I.M.

A favorite utility narrative holds that the federal Clean Power Plan is the reason we must upgrade our electric utility system and reduce emissions from fossil fuels. Without it, we could continue to run our big coal and gas plants and leave unchanged the transmission grid that has served us so well. But the truth is, the EPA as ‘bully’ is a myth. A new report from the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC) concludes “significant changes are occurring” in the way we generate and use electricity regardless of whether or not the Clean Power Plan, still under court challenge, is implemented. One change: NERC has tripled the amount of new renewable energy generation it predicts for next year.

NERC is just catching up with analysts and investment banks, who have been documenting the changes for several years. The Rocky Mountain Institute warns that grid-connected, solar-plus-battery-storage systems “will be economic within the next 10-15 years for many customers in many parts of the country,” undercutting utility sales and turning electricity markets “upside down.”

Investment analysts agree. CitiGroup predicts utilities could suffer a “50%+ decline in their addressable market.” Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla, just made an offer to buy SolarCity because he believes on-site generation will eventually supply a third of our total electricity, and will be accompanied by huge amounts of battery storage like Tesla’s Powerpack.

Musk believes electric cars will increase demand for electricity, but other analysts see energy efficiency lowering demand. Efficient buildings are given a central place in the new energy mix in the NERC report.

Using less energy, or increasing our energy intensity, will reduce demand significantly without creating the economic disaster we have been warned will occur. Minnesota found the state’s efficiency program returned $4 for every $1 invested, helping to create almost $6 billion in new economic output. One of Warren Buffet’s utilities expects to reduce demand enough to close a couple of old coal plants and still not need any new generation until 2028. The utility is financing those retrofits for its customers’ buildings.

E-Lab, a group at the Rocky Mountain Institute that works with all industry stakeholders to chart our electricity systems, also sees changes in grid management systems making delivery of electricity more efficient. Pilot projects using new technology with grid-regulating software and designed with a variety of regulatory changes and financing models are being tested all around the country.

Each kilowatt-hour supplied by a rooftop solar panel, stored in an on-site battery, or saved by an efficient building, means one less kilowatt-hour utilities must generate. This inevitable reduction in central grid demand is why the future isn’t just about switching resources, like burning gas instead of coal, or even building solar and wind farms. The future is about a re-imagined system that allows and encourages you and me and our local mall to make our own electricity on-site, feeding some of what we make into storage and some onto the grid, and allowing us to draw on the grid when we need to.

We have the technology to create the new system, and regardless of any new EPA rules, this is the right time to replace the old technology. In 2010, 70% of our coal plants and all of our nuclear facilities were more than 30 years old. Recently SNL Energy identified 21,357 MW of coal, gas and nuclear generation “at risk” of early closure through 2020, plants that are inefficient and no longer economic to run.

Here in Virginia, our utilities don’t seem to be getting the message. Dominion Virginia Power has chosen to put most of its new investment dollars into large-scale natural gas plants, not renewable energy. Five or six years ago natural gas was believed to be the ‘transition’ fuel that could take us from coal to renewables-based electricity. We now understand that methane, released when extracting and distributing gas, is 86 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than CO2 while it is in the atmosphere. In addition, methane emissions have been both underreported and inaccurately measured, raising concerns that the climate impact of natural gas may be far greater than originally thought. New methane rules are being developed that should give us a better picture of actual emission levels, but it is already clear that if natural gas is a bridge fuel, the bridge must be a short one.

With analysts predicting the transition to renewable energy will happen sooner rather than later, investing heavily in new gas plants carries a significant economic risk as well as a climate risk. Investors like UBS Bank believe too many large plants will be “structural losers,” assets whose use is diminished before they are paid for. Going forward, we will still need to use some measure of natural gas, but natural gas can no longer be labeled the ‘transition’ fuel.

Our utility systems are at a crossroad. One road requires our utilities, our regulators and our legislators to re-imagine our electricity system, rethinking the old monopoly rate regulations that reward centralized fossil fuel generation. This reimagined system will require a grid that is no longer the rigid one-directional distributer of electricity, but rather one that finds value in resources that generate and store electricity where it is used. If we fail to take that road, the alternative path will lead to ‘grid defection’: customers choosing to leave the grid and provide their own electricity by installing solar with batteries and retrofitting their buildings to use less. One thing is certain: a top down, monopolistic, state-regulated system is NOT the future.

As NERC concluded, changes to the energy mix, and to the level of demand, are happening with or without the Clean Power Plan. They are happening because it is time to rebuild our aging energy infrastructure. They are happening because the technology is now available to create an energy system that protects our air and our water as well as our atmosphere. And the changes are happening because a rebuilt system, designed as an interactive network, not a one directional, top-down grid, will actually be a cheaper system. It will be a system that is more reliable and more resilient, as well as more secure from storms and attack. That rebuilt system will serve Virginia’s electricity customers better without risk to our air, our water or our climate.

Jane Twitmyer is a renewable energy consultant and advocate.