Are rural electric cooperatives cooperative and democratic?

In a sense, community-owned renewable energy and democracy are somewhat synonymous terms. Some may assume that electric “cooperatives” are democratic, but that would be an assumption worth testing once in awhile. A decade ago, two colleagues and I, attended a particularly interesting annual meeting of our electric utility, Blue Ridge Electric Membership Corporation, or BREMCO (an “EMC”). The meeting was well choreographed even before it started with plenty of parking attendants directing us into our parking space with military precision at Ashe County High School early that Saturday morning. We went directly to the school cafeteria where sausage biscuits and gravy and plenty of Cheerwine (a famous southern carbonated cola-type drink) got the big crowd revved up. Free raffle tickets for a wide screen TV (a new marvel at that time) to be given away in the formal meeting was the buzz out in the main hallway. Stationed at the door exiting the cafeteria was a free “blood pressure check” point, which drew a lot less attention.

This was a time when the North Carolina “wind wars” were raging in our backyard and powerful forces did not want the energy status quo to be disrupted. No renewables! Standard talking point reasons too. As my colleagues and I sat in the cafeteria, EMC personnel confronted us asking “what are you doing?” Striking us as an odd ask, especially in the intimidating manner in which it was asked, we realized that our open laptop with a mapping database of mountaintop coal mining sites in central Appalachia was about as conspicuous as a rhinoceros in the room. The personnel surely saw us as renewable energy rabble rousers. They asked us in a stern tone to put the laptop away. We did.

Walking down the main hallway toward the school gym where the formal meeting was about to convene, we walked by a BREMCO table with staff handing us postcards asking for our proxy for them to lobby against carbon regulations in Washington. If the security visit over sausage biscuits wasn’t enough to clue us in as to what was afoot, this was. Giving our voice away uncritically was asking a lot in our opinion, but mostly attendees walked by and willingly obliged. I’m speculating, however, I doubt most even heard the pitch, instead yielding to avoid thinking about it. But these were the appetizers. Inside the gym, the meeting was an ethnographic feast.

The meeting was duly called to order. The board of directors was seated up on stage behind the lecturn. Ballot boxes, padlocked no less, were displayed at the front of the stage. Nothing says democracy like real ballot boxes, right? The CEO began the proceedings with the usuals and before you knew it, the crowd was getting restless. Perhaps they were bored with the bureaucracy and no doubt anxious to see who’d win the flat screen TV. But the meeting labored on, and only a bit of impressively bold questioning from the audience kept things lively. One young unemployed single mother, probably not older than 20, asked the CEO if he would be willing to take a pay cut since he’d just said “we’re all in hard times together.” Silence. She refused to leave the microphone, continuing to stand and wait for her answer. “Are you going to answer?” she persisted. The tension in the room at that moment made time stand still, but the standoff ended when she got her answer. NO. The economy had just crashed and of course some folks couldn’t pay their power bill.

Sensing the end, someone made a motion to dispense with the reading of the minutes. All in favor– boisterous. All opposed– I could hear a church mouse. Another motion to waive the ballot counting. Again the ah’s had it. Board seats approved. Robert’s Rules of Order had spared the crowd and it was on to the raffle!

What did this scene suggest? Without going full critical analysis, it did suggest that, by design, member participation was passive at best. Even though the turnout was large, little if any space existed for substantive member participation in setting agendas and making decisions. And truth be told, it seemed like folks really didn’t want to bother with governance, which requires responsibility and work. The spectacle of the meeting seemed to be a subtle design to pacify active participation.

I charge at this BREMCO EV charging station anytime I’m traveling between Boone and Charlotte. Thanks BREMCO. We want more!
I love that BREMCO has done some community solar arrays, installed a fast charge EV station with solar, and the line crews are the best after damaging storms come through. But this does beg the question, can I do better and can we do better? I and we should at a minimum monitor what our cooperatives are doing in the realm of governance, transparency, and yes, much more community-based renewables. Better yet, we could find ways to actively participate in that process to make sure we get more community solar and more EV charging, among other asks. I’ve seen lots of great things across the country that cooperatives are doing. They really are a place where we could make progress in community-owned renewable energy development, but we can’t take that for granted.

On that note, I’ll post a recent story from Virginia in the next installment.

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