How to Have an Impact on Your Rural Electric Co-op
“My co-op says electricity rates will rise 50% in the next two years. What can I do?”
“Can I interconnect a wind generator to the electrical lines? Will the co-op buy excess power from me and, if so, at what rate?”
“Our local co-op has no meaningful incentives for investing in energy efficiency. How can we get it to help finance and support energy efficiency? It is such a low cost investment compared to building new power stations.”
Unlike customers of private utilities, members of Rural Electric Cooperatives (REC) are entitled to participate in governing their cooperative. Customers of a co-op are the owners, decision-makers, and part of the co-op’s governing body.
Rural electric co-ops are private, member-owned non-profit utilities. They came into being after a 1934 executive order signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The subsequently passed Rural Electrification Act gave co-ops access to publicly financed low cost funds to provide power to rural America, which was not being served by the for-profit utilities. Many co-ops are exempt from oversight by state utility commissions on issues like rate structures, rate setting and renewable energy standards, so the only handle on their decision-making in these key areas is through member involvement.
Unfortunately, many REC’s have insulated their decision-making boards and managers from the members and bringing about change can be a formidable challenge. Electric utilities—even REC’s—are large, technically complex enterprises which need hard working and knowledgeable management and board members. Members who seek reforms like investments in demand side management, energy efficiency, Smart grids or distributed generation are often ignored by the REC insiders who sometimes try to marginalize active members as naïve and uninformed.
REC leaders who ignore the need for energy efficiency and renewable energy have led their members down an expensive and risky path. They are pouring resources into energy sources of the past, like conventional coal-fired power plants and denying the growing imperative to reduce carbon emissions. Many REC’s and their lobbying associations promote misinformation about climate change in their public outreach to members, and have failed to adopt proactive strategies that could meet new demand or manage demand in a cost-effective way.
Colorado Adopts Open Governance Law in 2010
In June, 2010, Governor Bill Ritter of Colorado signed into law a bill that will require more open governance and transparency in Colorado RECs. Among its provisions, the new law requires that:
- Minutes be kept of board meetings and posted on websites,
- A clear policy on board elections be publicly posted,
- Membership lists be make available to all duly qualified board candidates for purpose of communicating with the membership, IF such lists are made available to incumbents,
- Co-op board members’ contact information be made accessible to co-op members on the co-op website.
- Board meetings be publicly noticed with time, place and agenda ten days in advance.
Colorado law already required that members be allowed to vote by mail.
How to Get Involved:
Across the nation, co-op members are actively getting involved in the actions and the policies of their local co-ops. Here are some suggestions for being effective and having an impact:
- Don’t try to do this by yourself. Get together with other co-op members who share your concerns to decide what steps to take. Trying to bring about meaningful reforms in co-ops will necessitate hard work. Reformers working alone can be isolated and marginalized much easier than groups who stand together.
- Do your homework. Read the bylaws and the power purchase agreements. Look over the minutes of recent meetings of the board and read through the website.
- Open a dialogue with the leadership of the co-op, formally or informally. Ask for a meeting with the manager or board members. Ask for their support in bringing about changes you seek. Example: Members of a Western Montana co-op asked their District Board member to coffee to talk about climate change concerns and asked him to advocate for more balanced and responsible coverage of the issue and less proselytizing in the co-op’s newsletter.
- Attend the annual meeting, board meetings, or other public events to get a sense of how the coop works and who the key decision-makers are. (If attendance at board meetings is discouraged or prohibited, your first objective might be to open up the meetings to members, with meeting notices, agendas, and minutes available where members can readily access them.) Ask to meet and interview co-op sponsored board candidates, especially incumbents. Example: Members of a local distribution co-op have consistently stood outside the Southern Montana Electric GT board meetings as television cameras and newspaper reporters film and interview them as they are being locked out of the board room during meetings. These well-publicized attempts to attend the meetings call attention to the GT’s insular and unresponsive leadership.
- Recruit and support a candidate for the board, or propose a resolution on policy or bylaws reform for more open governance. Such an effort is a major commitment that will require planning, fundraising, and hard work, especially if you are faced with resistant co-op leadership.
- In Western Colorado, conservation minded members succeeded in winning seats on a local distribution co-op board. Over several years, these new board members have helped transform their local co-op into one that is nationally recognized for its leadership in energy efficiency and renewable energy. The co-op, Delta Montrose Electric Association, stood in support of a bill that would require more transparent elections and meetings by Colorado RECs in the 2010 legislative session; while the Colorado Rural Electric Association initially opposed the bill.
- Build a relationship and communicate with local media. Particularly where issues are transparency and openness in governance, journalists can be important allies in opening up the workings of a co-op to public scrutiny.
- Expect push-back and know that meaningful change will not happen over night. The goal of enlisting RECs on a journey that builds homegrown prosperity in rural parts of the country and leads the nation toward clean, renewable energy that will never run out is a worthy one. The availability of affordable, distributed electricity technologies should be a good fit with cooperatives’ mission, history and service areas. Ingenuity and entrepreneurial spirit is alive and well in rural communities and local co-ops can and should be harnessing them to be engines of economic renaissance in rural America.
How Open and Democratic Is Your Co-op?
Here are some questions to gauge how open and accessible your local distribution co-op is as you begin to think about changing the system.
- Does your co-op post its by-laws on its web site? Are they easily accessible?
- Does your co-op provide contact information for its board members in the newsletter or on its website?
- Does your co-op post agendas and minutes for board meetings on-line?
- Does your co-op allow members to nominate candidates for the board? How hard is it to be nominated? (For example, can 15 members nominate a candidate for the board by signing a petition, or does it take 250?)
- Are members welcome at board meetings? Are meeting dates and times posted in newsletters, area newspapers, online, or otherwise readily accessible to interested members?
- Do your bylaws permit members to propose and vote on resolutions at annual meetings and, if so, how difficult is the process?
- Do you have to attend a meeting to vote, or is mail-in voting permitted and encouraged?
- Is information about all candidates running for the board publicized to the membership through newsletters or the website?
If your co-op scored high on our check list, you will likely find a responsive and interested manager, staff and board.
If your co-op scores low on the check list, your first step might be to address goals of more open and accountable decision-making, before tackling reforms in planning and power policies.
What is Community Solar?
Community solar is the sharing of renewable solar power from a centralized source. As distributed generation and customer demand for solar grow, community solar offers an excellent opportunity for utilities to give their customers what they want while retaining control of generation in their service area. Also referred to as shared solar or solar gardens, community solar consists of a central installation that provides customers with an opportunity to opt into the solar installation and receive a proportional share of financial or energy output of the system, thereby allowing customers to realize the environmental and economic benefits of solar energy without requiring a solar installation of their own.
In this way, community solar offers a promising opportunity to extend access to solar electricity to the 85 percent of energy consumers who either do not own their homes, have roofs that are shaded or not appropriately oriented, or who have difficulty financing standalone photovoltaic systems[i].
Community solar is a cooperative approach to solar. It enables… utilities to do what they do best: engage with their members, provide affordable power, and maintain a safe and reliable grid.-The National Rural Electric Cooperative, The Community Solar Playbook (2016)
PEC Year Round Energy-Saving Tips
Community solar is being actively pursued in Texas—by Municipally Owned Utilities, Electric Cooperatives, Investor Owned Utilities, and Retail Electric Providers proving that Texas offers a conducive environment for community solar. In fact, the number of active Texas community solar projects grew from two to five between 2015 and 2016. Many more projects are expected to come online in 2017 and beyond.
Texas is poised to further expand community solar thanks to its permissive regulatory environment, availability of financing (in part due to the extension of the Federal Investment Tax Credit), and falling solar costs.
Texas Community Solar Guidelines
The Texas Community Solar Guidelines for Electric Cooperatives and Municipally-Owned Utilities was developed as a high level primer for how a Texas non-profit utility can launch a community solar project. It provides a summary of community solar, its recent growth in Texas, technical resources to reference, and an overview of the major community solar decision points. This document is for Texas non-profit utilities and was informed by Texas community solar project managers.
Benefits of Community Solar
- Control distributed generation
- Gain experience with renewables
- Improve standing in community
- Reduce transmission and distribution maintenance costs
For End Users
- Access to solar for anyone!
- Offset electricity costs and hedge against future price increases
- Zero-emission energy!
Find Out If Your Community Has Community Solar!
Austin Energy serves Travis and a small portion of Williamson County. Austin Energy’s community solar program is currently in development but plans to be available to the community soon!
Do you live in or around San Antonio? Check out CPS Energy’s Community Solar Program ! CPS Energy serves the City of San Antonio, Bexar County and parts of Medina, Comal and Atascosa Counties.
Check out the CoServ Solar Station! CoServ Electric serves portions of Denton, Collin, Tarrant and Dallas Counties.
In 2017, El Paso Electric will begin operating its first Community Solar Program! El Paso Electric serves portions of Texas in El Paso, Hudspeth and Culberson Counties and New Mexico.
Check out Mid-South Synergy’s Synergy Solar Program, offering a maintenance free solution to going solar! Mid-South Synergy serves communities in Grimes and portions of Walker and Montgomery Counties.
MP2 Energy is offering farm-to-market solar energy through the LocalSun Program! The program is available to Houston-area residents.
the TXU Energy Solar Club offers a consumer the choice to have the first 500 kW of electricity each month be purchased from solar farms in Texas.
Pedernales Electric Cooperative is currently constructing 15 separate 1 MW arrays which are being developed as a cost-efficient addition to the power generation and the future of community solar for the electric cooperative. Pedernales Electric Cooperative serves communities in 24 counties in the Texas Hill Country.
[i] Solar Electric Power Association; Accelerating Adoption of Community Solar, February 2016
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Greenbelt Solar is a Texas Licensed Electrical Contractor, license number # 28367. Greenbelt Solar has NABCEP Certified Solar PV Installer crew members, and a Texas Master Electrician on staff.
Greenbelt Solar is an established local installer in the central Texas region. We are a participating contractor with highest customer satisfaction rating in Austin Energy’s Solar Incentive Program and ONCOR’s Solar Incentive Program. We also work in Pedernales Electric Coop, GVEC and Bluebonnet Electric Coop territories.
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Carey Wheeler Ibrahimbegovic. President and CEO Carey’s investigative and intuitive mind have led to success in finding the one of a kind fit for each and every customer wishing to lower their utility bills and to install an affordable renewable energy system in their home or a business. Adi Ibrahimbegovic. Lead PV Installer/Managing PartnerAdi Ibrahimbegovic is a Lead PV Installer and technical consultant. Together with his lovely wife Carey, he is a part owner and managing partner of Greenbelt Solar. In his professional career Adi has worked for many Fortune 500 companies in USA such as Best Buy, ExxonMobil, Lyondell Chemicals and IBM. As a computer programmer and a lead web developer, he was responsible for designing, developing and maintaining many corporate web sites such as IBM Corp. Global Industries and others.Dustin F Project Manager Dustin started his solar career in California and we are so happy that he brought his experience to Austin. He has been working for Greenbelt Solar since 2012, and he is onsite for all of our projects.
Pedernales solar incentives
A summary of rebates and assistance programs. Source: Data published online May 5, 2008 by power companies serving Austin, San Antonio, and the Hill Country of Central Texas. Sources, AustinEnergy.com, CPSEnergy,com, and PEC.coop. (Chart VisitWimberley.com)
It’s official. We’re in an energy crisis, and it’s not likely to get better soon. Every day it’s becoming more clear that our dependence on fossil fuels is part of a system that must be changed. Harnessing the immense power of the Texas sun for clean, sustainable energy is one logical solution. Our local electric cooperative, PEC, has contributed to the problem through lack of support for technologies that replace sources like coal and oil.
The Wimberley area has been feeling the effects of continuing dependence on fossil fuels for some time. than one homeowner or business in the Hill Country has been wishing lately their electrical power came from a renewable source like sun or wind.
Energy costs are skyrocketing and oil companies are making record profits. The president of OPEC, Chakib Khelil, warned the price of crude could hit 200 a barrel. He’s probably right, despite bouncing recession-era prices.
And we’ve seen with the largest oil spill in history off our shores, BP’s Deepwater Horizon, that the costs reach far higher than just the price we see at the pump.
Added to that is the fact that visitors now look twice at the astronomical costs of fuel for what was once considered a short drive to the Hill Country. and Wimberley depends heavily on tourism.
Hill Country residents are also become more aware of the fragility of a lifestyle dependent on unsustainable energy sources. Going green is no longer just for tree-huggers, but has become a goal for every Texan with awareness of the inconvenient truths of our rapidly diminishing resources.
Wimberley is feeling the pain and it’s easy to see why those who work and live in the area are looking for ways to cope more efficiently with the energy challenge.
Metropolitan areas to the north and south of Wimberley are getting a little help from their friends at the local power company. This is not true for the Hill Country area, whose rural electric cooperative, Pedernales Electric (PEC), offers virtually no support or incentives to switch to sustainable power sources and retrofits for energy conservation.
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Direct conversion of solar radiation to electricity (photovoltaics and concentrating solar power) is an obvious solution to the energy problem in Central Texas, converting heat from the infamously hot Texas sun to a priceless asset. Scaling up the use of solar energy is a no-brainer, it would seem.
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Although the power companies that serve Austin (Austin Energy) and San Antonio (CPS Energy) now offer more than a dozen ways to assist residents toward sustainable practices, PEC appears to be operating in another, earlier, century.
Since electric cooperatives were begun to bring electric initiatives to rural areas, this anachronism stands in even greater relief. In 1935, the Rural Electric Administration (REA) was created under Franklin D. Roosevelt to improve the standard of living and the economic competitiveness of rural communities. An electric co-op would seem to be the key to the doorway of the future, helping us all attain a sustainable lifestyle through support, education, and incentives.
Unfortunately, the PEC falls woefully short on all fronts. For starters, take the educational arm of this mission. One example is the use of the Pedernales edition of the Texas Co-op Power magazine to offer only such light-hearteded suggestions as buying Energy Star appliances on a sales tax holiday. (Texas Co-op Power, May, 2008: p.5) To this date, July 11, 2010, no serious articles offering realistic suggestions for the implementation of residential solar power have been published.
This publication, sent to every PEC member-customer on a monthly basis, could provide a significant service through information and resources for sustainable living, helping to improve the standard of living and the economic competitiveness of rural communities. Instead, as an example of the treatment of the subject of solar power in the magazine, the same May issue mentions it only once, in a Letter to the Editor selected for print entitled Solar Systems Expensive. ( ibid. p. 4)
A more recent edition ostensibly addresses the issues surrounding solar options with the discouraging opening line, Practically speaking, solar-generated electricity is still but a glimmer in our future. Although this may well summarize the current PEC attitude toward solar solutions, it highlights how woefully out of touch the organization remains with the urgent need to support and promote sustainable energy for the people who send in the checks each month.
Texas Solar Incentives
There is not a statewide tax credit for Texas yet, but most utility companies offer incentives for homes and businesses going solar, as well as for adding battery backup and making home improvements that help with energy efficiency. The availability of these incentives varies throughout the state, but many utility companies offer a rebate on a price per watt basis for going green with energy.
While some utility companies offer a rebate for solar power, others use net metering. Net metering is an arrangement between the utility company and property owner that allows any overproduced solar energy to be sold back to the power grid. The money from this is typically applied as a credit in the next bill. Unfortunately, net metering is not available everywhere, so it is something you need to contact your utility company directly to find out if they offer it.
Some cities also offer their own incentives for solar power. For example, in Austin, there is a property tax exemption for homeowners with solar power. Here is a list of the sites for the other solar incentives and rebates available in Texas.