Pandemic Permitting: A Hopeful Sign of Democracy in Electric Co-op Territory

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Donald M. Kreis, New Hampshire Consumer Advocate

Power to the People is a column by D. Maurice Kreis, New Hampshire’s Consumer Advocate. Kreis and his staff of four represent the interests of residential utility customers before the NH Public Utilities Commission and elsewhere. It is co-published by Manchester Ink Link and

By D. Maurice Kreis, Power to the People

With a global pandemic threatening to kill millions of people, and with the world’s economy having just sailed off a cliff with no bottom in sight, you might be looking for sources of inspiration here in New Hampshire.  I have one.

I just made the acquaintance of Tony Wagner of Sandwich. An education reformer, Tony spent 12 years as a high school English teacher and eventually ended up on the faculty at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.  His seventh book, Learning by Heart, is being published in April by Penguin/Random House.

Of course we met by phone.  As the dad of a high school student with cystic fibrosis (a serious lung condition) I don’t need convincing that social distancing is critical as COVID-19 spreads among us.

Tony wasn’t calling me to advance his quest for “cultures of innovation based on collaboration, interdisciplinary problem-solving, and intrinsic motivation” (to quote a blurb on his web site about his 2012 bestseller, Creating Innovators). Nor was he calling to inquire if he’s a long-lost cousin, since he shares the name of my late paternal grandfather. (As far as I know, we are unrelated.)

No, Tony was calling to talk about something far more interesting, at least to me.  It’s Article II, Section 3 of the bylaws of the New Hampshire Electric Cooperative (NHEC).

As the state’s ratepayer advocate, I keep a friendly, keenly interested eye on the NHEC.  After all, it’s the only public utility in the state whose customers and owners are the same people – the Co-op’s members.  Tony Wagner is one of them.

Moreover, the NHEC is democratically controlled by those member-owners.  They elect the NHEC’s board of directors and can participate in the Co-op’s annual meeting.  The next one is June 22, pandemic permitting.

Since siphoning money out of the pockets of ratepayers to maximize return on investment for profit-seeking but distant shareholders is not on the agenda for an electric co-op, one expects great things from the NHEC.  The Legislature certainly does, since it liberated the NHEC from nearly all oversight by the Public Utilities Commission nearly two decades ago.

But the premise – that regulation is unnecessary when the owners and the customers are the same folks – presumes that the owners will exercise their right to oversee what they own.  Around the U.S., that premise has sometimes proven to be disappointingly flawed.

I know this because I chair the Board of Trustees of the nonprofit organization We Own It, the national network for cooperative member rights, member education, and member organizing.  As the organization’s web site proclaims, We Own It “serve[s] an unfilled need for a national association that represents co-op member-owners, rather than a trade association of cooperative businesses.”

I’m involved with We Own It because I have seen the horror stories about electric co-ops in other parts of the country whose directors and managers ignored election formalities and other systems of democratic accountability while lining their pockets illegally.  Other electric co-ops, while paying lip service to democracy, have remained steadfastly committed to coal power even as member-owners clamor for renewables.

Happy, that does not describe the New Hampshire Electric Cooperative.  Particularly since respected energy lawyer Steven Camerino became the NHEC’s CEO in 2015, this is a co-op that takes member ownership and democratic member participation seriously.

But the organs of democracy atrophy when not exercised.

One such organ is found in Article II, Section 3 of the NHEC bylaws.  That’s the provision which allows NHEC members to petition the Co-op to put a proposition up for a vote by the NHEC membership at the annual meeting.

Tony Wagner is helping to organize such a petition campaign for this year’s annual meeting.  He and his collaborators want to force a member vote on adding eight words to the NHEC’s certificate of organization – the legally binding document that lays out the purposes of the cooperative.

To that list of purposes, the petition organizers propose to add “facilitating access to broadband internet for members.”

If that’s not an idea for our times, I don’t know what is.  Remember that rural electric cooperatives like the NHEC were a New Deal program, created to address the egregious refusal of the nation’s investor-owned utilities to wire up rural America.  That refusal had consigned millions of Americans to poverty and darkness.

Even before the Covid-19 pandemic hit and infection control measures forced everyone into virtual house-arrest, so many Granite Staters were without the kind of broadband internet necessary to interact fully with the wider world in the digital age.  That’s especially true in the largely rural service territory of the NHEC.

In other words, rural broadband is to our time what rural electrification was to the 1930s.   That’s why more than 100 of the NHEC’s counterparts around the country are investing in broadband infrastructure, according to the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association

How intriguing, therefore, that the petition organizers are not actually calling for NHEC to invest in (to lapse into broadband techno-speak) fiber-to-the-home directly.  Instead, they say that NHEC “doesn’t need to finance, own or operate a fiber network to facilitate others to develop systems. It just needs to make attaching fiber to NHEC poles straightforward, predictable and affordable.”

Does this mean they have one or more developers at the ready, if only the electric cooperative were to get more enthusiastic – or, dare I say, more cooperative — about sharing the precious vertical real estate on its poles? That’s difficult to say.

I just know a good idea when I see one.  And I know that residential ratepayers are held back when they can’t get access to the internet, especially now when everyone is stuck with learning and doing business virtually.

Though broadband is vitally important, Tony Wagner and his friends would deserve praise for their effort even if their referendum campaign were just a call to bring back Willy Wiredhand, the long-retired electric co-op answer to the for-profit utilities’ Reddy Kilowatt.

No matter what’s at issue, it is good to remind members of an electric cooperative that they own the place and that it is a democracy.  And it is good to remind the management of an electric cooperative – even one as diligent and public spirited as our state’s electric cooperative – that they are accountable to the popular will of the member-owners.

The petition organizers have until April 21 to gather 300 signatures.  You have to be a current member of the New Hampshire Electric Cooperative to sign.

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