Over the past year we’ve pointed out many undemocratic and unfair practices at Rappahannock Electric Cooperative (REC). These practices result in REC’s generously paid board of directors being more accountable to co-op management than to consumers. Yet we consumers, who are member-owners of REC, are supposed to have input into the operation of our cooperative. We deserve a board of directors that is accountable to us, and looking for innovative ways to bring us affordable power.
cooperatives should help members save
One consequence of the REC board’s lack of accountability is that many REC members are paying more than they need to for electricity. We recently reported how REC locked itself into paying above-market rates for wholesale power, thanks to a 45-year contract REC’s board approved with REC’s power supplier, ODEC. This means it’s all the more important to look for ways to reduce customers’ bills. In fact, REC’s trade association recently acknowledged that many rural electric cooperative consumers in Virginia are having trouble paying their electric bills.
REC does offer advice to members who know to ask for it, but a look at what innovative rural electric co-ops are doing elsewhere reveals that REC could be doing far more to help all co-op members lower their bills. Many REC members could reduce energy usage (and bills) significantly with upgrades to major appliances and heat pump/AC units. Many more could reduce bills even further with home improvements such as better insulation, new windows and doors, duct sealing, and the like. But consumers who are struggling just to pay their monthly bills can’t easily afford these energy-saving options.
In Arkansas, Ouachita Electric Cooperative has a program called HELP Pay As You Save (PAYS). With PAYS the cooperative does a free comprehensive home energy audit to determine the best ways to reduce electricity usage. Then the co-op pays for the upgrades needed to make consumers’ homes more energy efficient. The cost is then recovered through reductions on the member’s monthly bill. Part of the reduction goes to the co-op, to reimburse it for the upfront costs. But there’s still enough overall reduction in energy costs to lower the consumer’s monthly bill even after paying the co-op for the upgrades. Even better, once the co-op recovers the upgrade costs, the consumer’s monthly bill goes down even more.
rec board a ‘no show’ on member savings programs
Ouachita’s video on PAYS notes that electric cooperatives, because they are nonprofit and member-owned, are uniquely well-suited to help their members reduce bills with programs like PAYS. Ouachita General Manager Mark Cayce gave the keynote speech at the ACEEE rural energy conference last fall. He explained that PAYS not only helps consumers reduce their bills, but also helps the co-op reduce its expenses for high demand charges at peak usage times. That helps lower bills for all co-op members, even those who don’t take advantage of PAYS. Board members from other rural electric cooperatives attended the conference and gave Cayce a standing ovation, but no Rappahannock Electric Cooperative board member attended.
Roanoke Electric Cooperative in North Carolina has a similar program to reduce its members’ bills, called Upgrade to $ave. In a video, Roanoke’s CEO Curtis Wynn explains how Upgrade to $ave helps co-op members lower their bills with home efficiency improvements paid through bill reductions. Wynn is a nationally recognized electric cooperative leader. In fact he was recently elected president of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association. As with PAYS, Roanoke’s program is available to all co-op members, but is especially helpful to those who can’t afford to pay the upfront costs of home energy improvements. These programs aren’t just for homeowners either; renters can also take advantage of them. South Carolina electric co-ops offer similar programs. But not REC.
federal money left on the table
Last year the US Department of Agriculture made $100 million available through its Rural Energy Savings Program to help electric co-ops implement energy efficiency programs. So why doesn’t REC offer an option like PAYS or Upgrade to $ave to its members? We don’t know, because we don’t know what happens at REC board meetings, and REC’s board doesn’t want us to know. The board won’t even allow REC members to vote on making board meetings open for members to observe.
What we do know is that REC’s board has a go-along-to get-along culture that discourages challenging REC’s management. It’s time for REC to catch up with co-ops like Ouachita and Roanoke and bring real efficiency and lower bills to all REC members. That will require electing new board members willing to push for consumer-friendly programs like PAYS and Upgrade to $ave.