FRANKFORT, Ky. – This month is National Cooperative Month, and Kentucky’s 26 electric co-ops supply power to 1.5 million Commonwealth residents in all 120 counties.
Electric cooperatives are member-owned, not-for-profit utility companies, often serving rural areas. Unlike a traditional utility that is beholden to its stakeholders, said Rachel Norton, an energy specialist at the Mountain Association for Community Economic Development, electric co-op members often can choose clean-energy options such as solar.
“Organizations like rural electric co-ops at least have opportunities for all of their member-owners to take advantage of solar through their programs, that do pay for themselves,” she said, “so cooperatives in eastern Kentucky did invest in Solar Farm 1, which is a large solar farm in Winchester, Ky.”
In 2017, electric co-ops across the United States collectively returned more than $1.1 billion in excess revenue to their members, according to the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association.
However, Norton said cooperatives don’t always run the way they’re supposed to, and many aren’t doing enough to represent or engage their members. A few years ago, Owen County resident Tona Johnston-Barkley fought to attend the board meetings of Owen Electric, where she’s a co-op member.
“What we did was, while we were out campaigning, we had a petition that was a members’ bill of rights,” Johnston-Barkley said, “and we would say to people, ‘Did you know that you can’t attend a board meeting?’ And they’re like, ‘What?’ And so, we’d say, ‘Would you like to sign this?’ We had several hundred names.”
She added that, while Owen Electric did start to publish its minutes online, board meetings remained closed to the public. While member cooperatives are, in theory, democratic, Johnston-Barkley said they only work that way through heavy involvement by members.
“The people who want to affect the process need to be very educated about the problems,” she said.
A new online toolkit developed by the New Economy Coalition can help members navigate how to get involved in their local electric co-op, from understanding bylaws and finances to information on clean energy and rural broadband.