Rural electric cooperatives provide electricity for nearly 20% of all Virginians. With a history dating back to New Deal efforts to bring electricity to rural communities, cooperatives are meant to be open and democratic institutions in which customers are “member-owners” with a meaningful voice in key decisions affecting electric rates, energy sources, and quality of service.
Unfortunately, Rappahannock Electric Cooperative (REC), Virginia’s largest electric cooperative, is failing in its obligation to be fair and transparent to its member-owners. Current policies make it nearly impossible for REC members to be fully informed and to meaningfully participate in important decisions affecting electric rates, local energy options, and co-op financial decisions. These policies include a lack of access to basic information, including financial data, and an unfair board elections process.
Join the Repower REC coalition!
Solar United Neighbors of Virginia works to help Virginians harness local solar energy. We’ve facilitated more than 650 individual solar installations across the Commonwealth through our solar co-ops, including more than 50 on homes in REC service territory. A central part of our mission is defending the rights of people who want to install solar and ensuring that utilities treat all customers fairly.
We are concerned about REC’s undemocratic policies on principle, but also because REC’s lack of transparency and open process has real consequences for our community of solar supporters and all REC customers. For example, in 2017 REC proposed a 100% increase in the monthly fixed “access” charge on everyone’s electric bills. Ignoring well-documented data showing that customer-owned rooftop solar benefits all utility customers, REC asserted, without evidence, that a rate increase was necessary to cover costs imposed on their system by rooftop solar. Solar United Neighbors joined the grassroots effort to oppose the rate increase with the result that REC agreed to reduce the increase from 100% to 40%. REC also agreed to implement transparency and public participation procedures for future changes to fixed-charges, including giving members notice and the opportunity to provide comments to REC’s board.
But the issues with REC’s undemocratic polices don’t end there. REC does not allow its members to observe board meetings, nor does it make its meetings available online, publish detailed meeting minutes, or even provide easily-accessible contact information for board members. When member-owners request such information, REC requires members to agree to pay potential legal fees before providing access. Instead of discouraging member inquiries with thinly veiled legal threats, REC should make it easy and convenient for members to find out what their board is discussing and how decisions are made.
Unlike some other rural cooperatives, REC does not provide easily-accessible or sufficiently detailed financial information for members to evaluate a wide range of REC financial decisions affecting their pocketbooks—including capital-credit reimbursement to members, board pay, and increasing customer fees. REC also makes it hard for members to determine what percentage of their rates REC spends as part of national and state-level political lobbying groups.
Under REC’s current board election rules, REC members do not have the necessary information to evaluate the positions of the candidates. Even worse, the sitting board of directors can assign blank proxy ballots to their preferred candidates. The result is a board that is non-responsive and inaccessible to the co-op members they represent.
We believe that REC customers deserve better. Our experience with REC has prompted us to join the Repower REC coalition organized by REC member-owners who are committed to reforming their cooperative’s policies. To address the governance problems, Repower REC has put forward sensible bylaw changes meant to revitalize the cooperative through transparency and member-driven democracy.
We urge REC customers, all of whom are member-owners, to join Repower REC and send a clear message to the board that they support the proposed bylaw changes.
It’s time to put REC’s member-owners back in control of their cooperative. It’s time to democratize REC.