Electric cooperative members aren’t just customers – they’re also the owners of co-ops that boards of directors are supposed to serve. But directors from four Alaska Railbelt electric co-ops say it’s often hard to figure out what their members want, because usually only a few offer feedback, and even fewer participate in board elections and meetings.
When the moderator of an online forum asked last week how Alaska’s electric cooperatives can get their members more involved in their co-ops, the four board directors all said they really need to hear from them. Especially during the boards’ monthly or annual meetings.
“Board meetings? We get a smattering of folks coming to them,” said Sam Cason of Chugach Electric.
Same with Homer Electric, says Erin McKittrick: “We basically hardly ever get anyone (who’s) a member at our board meetings.”
And with Matanuska Electric, says Mark Masteller: “Very few people ever show up!”
Dave Messier of Golden Valley Electric added “There’s not a ton of participation in our board meetings.”
The four directors spoke during a forum sponsored by The Alaska Center on empowering co-op members to take a more active role in their utility. Moderator Nabi Qureshi says that’s the key to what’s called “energy democracy.”
“Energy democracy is a movement that’s rooted in social, economic and environmental justice that works to put more power over our everyday energy systems into the hands of the communities that it serves,” she said in introductory remarks for the May 6 webinar.
The directors all suggested ways to increase member participation by, for example, pointing out that they no longer need to show up at meetings, but instead can simply call-in or log-on to online board meetings. And, joining a panel like Golden Valley’s Member Advisory Committee, which Messier served on for four years before being elected to the board.
“And I can just say it’s a great opportunity for folks to get interested in and learn about what their co-op, what their utility does and what it is,” he said.
McKittrick, with Homer Electric, stressed the importance of members exercising their right to choose the directors who run the co-ops. “As important as any of this is to actually vote in the elections!” she said.
The panelists agreed that once a director is elected, members must continue to communicate their concerns and priorities. Cason, the Chugach director, says that’s how Railbelt co-op members’ succeeded in getting the state to build the Bradley Lake Hydroelectric Plant. The Kenai Peninsula facility went online in 1991and generates up to 120 megawatts for the Railbelt.
“Bradley Lake would’ve never been built without decades of persistent cooperative member participation,” he said.
Masteller, with Matanuska Electric, cites the example of members of that co-op stopping construction of a coal-fired power plant that was proposed back in 2007.
“We saw a lot of members in our area say ‘We don’t want a coal-fired powerplant.’ ” He said. “And that worked, and we ended up with a natural gas-fired power plant.”
Messier says strong member support led Golden Valley’s board to approve a big solar-energy project in Fairbanks. The half-megawatt facility went online in 2018.
Messier says some members are simply more vocal than others, and the majority of those most vocal members want more renewable energy. But he says many others want the board to focus mainly on keeping rates as low as possible.
“I would say that we’ve definitely got a large percentage of members that are very concerned with rates,” he said. “I don’t think those folks are often the most vocal members.”
Messier says he’s a strong advocate for renewable energy. But he says as a Golden Valley director, he’s got to represent all members. And he says that’s why directors need to hear from all the members.