This is an op-ed that ran in several outlets in January and February 2023.
Rural electric cooperatives provide power to nearly a third of Kentuckians, serving 1.5 million people in 117 counties. In recent months, the federal government has allocated unprecedented funding to help co-ops pay for the changes that will move us to a clean energy future, save us much needed money on our bills, and create good local jobs. There’s more than $10 billion on the table for co-ops, but that money is likely to be quickly allocated. That leaves Kentuckians facing an important question: will our co-ops go after this funding and use it to help us lower our energy bills? The need has never been greater.
Established by the Rural Electrification Act of 1936, co-ops have brought electricity to rural communities that private corporations did not find profitable to serve. They have played key roles in our local economies. However, over time, the member-ownership model has faced significant challenges here in Kentucky and in other southern states – including heavy debt for fossil fuel infrastructure that needs to be retired. Today, skyrocketing electric bills and concern about the climate crisis have driven more interest than ever before in modernizing our country’s energy landscape. The allocation of $10 billion dollars for co-ops being included in the Inflation Reduction Act was the federal government’s response to this moment of opportunity.
The unique, member-owned structure of co-ops as nonprofit utilities means that they are intended to be governed by their members and aligned with principles outlined by the National Rural Electric Cooperative. To help empower co-op members to push for significant changes, Mountain Association and Kentuckians For The Commonwealth released scorecards assessing Kentucky’s 24 rural electric cooperatives on their governance practices and types of programs offered to co-op member-owners. As a whole, our co-ops averaged just 34.1 out of 100 possible points, with 20.6 out of a possible 50 for services and 13.5 out of 50 points. Jackson Energy ranked highest overall with a score of 48, while Meade County Electric earned just 16 points out of 100.
The scorecards evaluate each co-op in two broad categories: member services and governance. Each co-op can earn up to 50 points for offering members service programs like inclusive financing for home weatherization, community solar options, fair compensation for energy generated by rooftop solar, broadband internet, the ability to opt-out of right-of-way spraying, and the ability to protect medically vulnerable households from disconnections due to non-payment. In the governance category, co-ops can earn up to 50 points for making board meetings and documents open and accessible, providing clear and accessible ways to communicate with the board, posting bylaws and IRS 990 forms on their website, and having accessible and democratic board election procedures.
While Kentucky’s cooperatives deserve a lot of credit for their solar net metering policy, their scorecards show much opportunity for improvement in other areas. Our hope is that both co-op employees and member-owners look at the scorecards as an opportunity to take advantage of the historic new federal investments that are being made available. We hope the scorecards increase lines of communication at each co-op about what energy efficiency and solar programs are available for homeowners and renters, how rates are established, and how each co-op is going to modernize and adopt cheaper and cleaner renewable energy and begin investing in local resiliency in the face of climate change and extreme weather events.
Citizens are more interested in getting engaged than ever before. Clean energy is more reliable and affordable than ever before. And there’s more money available for co-ops than ever before. Let’s bring all the pieces together. Find all the specifics about your Kentucky co-op’s score on the website: EnergyDemocracyYall.org. The Kentucky scorecards are part of a regional scorecard effort to empower co-op members across the South.
Chris Woolery is the Residential Energy Specialist at the Mountain Association. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.