Virginia Co-op Members Organize for Transparency, Renewable Energy, and Broadband

A couple years ago, fed up member-owners of Rappahannock Electric Cooperative (REC) in Virginia banded together to form Repower REC, a grassroots group that’s seeking to reform the state’s largest electric cooperative and advocating for clean energy and improved Internet access.

Rural electric co-ops are supposed to embrace the cooperative principles of democratic member control and concern for community, but some of REC’s members charge that the co-op’s practices fall short of those goals.

Repower REC hopes to bring greater transparency and member oversight to the co-op, as well as clean energy programs and a cooperative-owned broadband network.

Cleaning up Governance and the Grid

Rappahannock Electric Cooperative serves 170,000 meters in portions of 22 counties stretching from northern Virginia toward the Chesapeake Bay. It is the largest electric cooperative in Virginia and one of the largest in the country.

REC logo

Member-owners of the co-op launched Repower REC in 2018 in partnership with Solar United Neighbors of Virginia, in response to concerns over undemocratic practices and the lack of transparency at REC. The group has called for a number of reforms, including public board meetings and transparent board elections. People involved in the group have also spoken out against lobbying activities that they believe were not in the best interest of the co-op’s members. Repower REC members have run as candidates for the co-op board of directors, though none have won a seat as of yet.

Some of the initial interest in governance at REC stemmed from member dissatisfaction with the co-op’s lukewarm response to renewable energy as well as the co-op’s attempt to double its fixed access charges. Repower REC believes that increased member control of the co-op would push REC to further embrace clean energy solutions, like member-owned rooftop solar installations and cost-cutting energy efficiency programs.

Inching Toward Co-op Broadband

Improved Internet access is another issue that members of Repower REC have been advocating for. Supporters want the co-op to launch its own broadband network — something that at least five other electric co-ops in the state have already, including Central Virginia Electric Cooperative and Mecklenburg Electric Cooperative. Cooperative-owned broadband was also the subject of an email campaign organized by a co-op member in Louisa County.

REC leadership has studied the feasibility of starting its own broadband network but are concerned about the cost of deployment. “While broadband brings about great opportunity, it's also a very expensive undertaking and REC must proceed very carefully,” explained REC CEO John Hewa at the co-op’s recent annual meeting, reported the Rappahannock News.

However, some members have expressed disappointment at the speed of progress. “I don’t think they feel the urgency,” REC member and former board candidate Jack Manzari told the Central Virginian.

Community Broadband Networks Director Christopher Mitchell joined a virtual town hall hosted by RepowerREC earlier this month to talk about electric cooperative broadband projects. Watch the discussion below.