Three candidates have announced campaigns for election to the board of directors of the Rappahannock Electric Cooperative on a platform of bringing transparency and accountability to the cooperative’s governing board.
The candidates are all member-owners of REC and are affiliated with RePower REC, a grassroots coalition of the member-owners who want to “promote a more transparent and democratic REC” and “advocate for the fair and equitable treatment of distributed energy resources,” the group’s website states.
Caroline County resident Andrea Miller, executive director of People Demanding Action, a nonprofit that promotes clean energy in Virginia and nationwide, is running to represent Region VI on REC’s board.
Jack Manzari, a cattle-farmer whose farm is powered by solar energy, is running for Region VII—Louisa County—and Mike Biniek, a farmer and the owner of a Montessori school and summer camp, is running for Region 1, which includes the counties of Frederick and Shenandoah and portions of Page, Warren and Rappahannock counties.
Rappahannock Electric Cooperative provides electricity service to nearly 169,000 customers across central Virginia. It is governed by a nine-person board, elected by REC member-owners.
Like other rural electric cooperatives, REC grew out of legislation signed by Franklin Roosevelt in 1937, with the goal of providing electricity to rural households that investor-owned utility companies were not interested in serving.
RePower REC’s position is that the cooperative’s board has, in recent years, limited member-owners’ ability to participate in making decisions about board membership, electric rates, service reliability and energy sources.
REC’s website does not give customers the option to contact board members directly. Meeting dates, agendas and minutes are not posted and the meetings are not open to the public.
Other electric cooperatives, including the nation’s largest—Pedernales Electric Cooperative in Texas, which serves 300,000 customers—do make this information accessible to customers.
RePower REC also believes REC board member elections are unfair. Member-owners can vote for candidates from the three regions up for re-election at the annual meeting, held in August each year, but the vast majority of votes are cast by mail, through a ballot sent in the July issue of Cooperative Living magazine.
According to RePower REC, member-owners return thousands of ballots without voting for any candidate, which gives their votes to the current board members, who then vote themselves in.
“The co-op offers cash prizes to give people an incentive to mail the card back,” said Seth Heald, a REC customer and one of RePower REC’s three founders. “You can be entered in that lottery even by sending in a blank form and signing your name. It leads to more than half of ballots cast each year being blank.”
In a conference call Tuesday, the candidates said they would work to bring broadband to rural REC customers.
“In the 21st century, broadband is like electricity was for rural households in the 20th century,” Miller said.She also said she would work to make REC board meetings open to the public.
Biniek said he would advocate for renewable sources of energy.
“I think power companies can make a huge difference to the environment with how they choose to get their power,” he said.
Manzari also said he would encourage the board to “move faster and further” towards alternate sources of energy.
According to a November 2018 report by the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, REC customers have paid 23 to 50 percent above market cost for power that REC purchases from Old Dominion Electric Cooperative. Under the terms of a 45-year contract REC signed with ODEC, it must purchase 95 percent of its electricity supply from ODEC.
“It appears that REC customers could enjoy significant savings in power supply costs if REC were not locked into a long-term contract with ODEC,” the report states. “Without access to this contract, we are not able to evaluate the potential options for REC. We do not know whether REC has inquired with ODEC regarding their high power supply costs and whether there has been any attempt to renegotiate the power supply contract.”
The report’s author, energy analyst Cathy Kunkel, wrote in an accompanying commentary: “In light of current market conditions and future expectations, and the current high price of its power supply contract with ODEC, REC would be wise to have an open and transparent process for re-evaluating its power supply options.”
RePower REC also wants cooperative members to know how much standing board members are paid. REC currently pays board members a “retainer fee” of $2,000 per month and $500 per diem when attending meetings and conferences on behalf of the cooperative.
For more about RePower REC and its candidates, visit http://recreformcandidates.com/index.php.