Candidates run to put electric cooperative board control in hands of member-owners

By Ben Delman on April 12, 2019

About a third of Minnesotans get their electricity through an electric cooperative. Electric cooperatives operate differently than investor-owned utilities like Xcel Energy or Minnesota Power. While investor-owned utilities have a mandate to protect share-holder profits, electric cooperatives are supposed to act in the best interests of their member-owners. A new crop of candidates is running to ensure that cooperatives reflect the interests of their member-owners.

There are many barriers to creating a responsive electric cooperative. Cooperative board elections typically have low, often times single-digit turnout. Incumbent board members are rarely voted out of office. This can lead to the same board members serving in perpetuity with little accountability to their member-owners.

“I talk to people that weren’t aware that you vote for your board members,” said Dakota Electric Association candidate Stacy Miller. “They feel like customers rather than owners.” The Dakota Electric Association serves more than 100,000 member-owners in an area south of the Twin Cities.

Miller decided to run to help her electric cooperative adopt more renewable energy and energy efficiency measures.

She has deployed a variety of tactics to get the word out about the board election and her candidacy. The campaign has developed an online presence and  produced a series of videos. She has also been meeting people at libraries and other public events. Talking to commuters as they wait at their transit stop has also been effective, Miller said.

Dakota Electric’s board seats are divided up into different regions, but member-owners vote for candidates from all districts. This has allowed Miller to run as a “team” with another reform-minded candidate. This strategy allows both candidates to share their networks within their cooperative’s territory.

This is what three candidates north of Minneapolis decided to do. Running under the banner of “Connecting Us”, the group ran on a platform of transparency and shifting their utility, Connexus Energy, to develop more renewable energy. Although none of the candidates were successful this time, they were able to increase turnout by more than 150 voters over the previous year’s election and by more than 300 voters compared to 2017.

“It would be great to see more people run for their board. As more of us learn and participate, we raise awareness this is an option,” Miller said.