/We don’t have any voice’ Rural Mississippians feel shut out, overcharged by electric co-ops

We don’t have any voice’ Rural Mississippians feel shut out, overcharged by electric co-ops

Tanner has spent his entire life in Isola. It is a small community located 80 miles north from Jackson in Humphreys County. He was introduced to One Voice two years ago. This non-profit focuses on civic engagement in Mississippi. It offers free training programs that teach how to vote, engage and run for the boards of electric cooperatives. These are electric utilities that are owned by their members. One Voice’s mission is to empower people to challenge the unequal racial/economic power dynamics among state cooperatives, lower expensive utility bills, and push energy executives to invest in rural communities. Tanner, who is now the leader of One Voice’s community meetings, said that “we don’t have any voice.” “Now, we’re enlightening folks, and we’re trying take a position.” Cooperatives, which are not for profit, have greater flexibility and can respond to member feedback. The money left over after bills are paid is supposed to go back to members to be used for community centers, parks, schools, and other investments. There are stark demographic differences between the people who manage electric cooperatives and those who purchase energy from them. Mississippi’s black population is almost 40%, but the electric cooperative boards are only 66%. Twin County Electric Power Association serves 12,600 customers in five Mississippi Delta county counties. It has nine members, all men, and one person of color. (Twin County declined to answer a request to interview its board members. This is a common problem in the South. A 2016 study revealed that only 90 of the 3,000 Southern electric cooperative board members were black. This percentage is almost unchanged from 1984 when black Mississippi cooperative members brought a lawsuit alleging racial discrimination. These cooperatives and their practices are not subject to any federal or state oversight. This means that rural communities are not able to reap the benefits from this democratically-designed system. Crystal Huang, Energy Democracy National Tour organizer said that rural electric cooperatives were created to combat poverty and revitalize communities. It’s a noble intention. However, if good policy is not approved and implemented with community engagement, it could even make the problem worse.” Rural electric cooperatives have been viewed as a solution for inequitable access to electricity. The Rural Electrification Administration was established by President Franklin Roosevelt in 1935 to provide electricity to rural areas and farms throughout the United States. The first Rural Electrification Administration was started in Mississippi. More than 900 electric cooperatives are located in 47 states and provide electricity to over 40 million people. Many of these are in the South. Electric co-ops service about 98 percent in counties that are suffering from persistent poverty. In Mississippi, a state where the average household income is nearly three times lower than the rest of America, co-ops provide power to approximately 45 percent of households. Nsombi Lambright, Executive Director of One Voice, began hearing about Mississippi coop customers who were paying $500 to $1,000 per month in power bills. Others claimed they didn’t get their refund checks. This was a long-standing pattern. In 2014, Mississippi regulators discovered that seven of 25 Mississippi power associations weren’t refunding members. Twin County Electric Power Association was the most prominent, withholding $33million in capital credit funds it hadn’t refunded. Tim Perkins, general manager at Twin County, refused to answer any questions about refunds. However, he said that credits are determined by the board of directors. Twin County also gives back to the community through donations to local schools and two $1,000 scholarships to support a youth leadership program. Stephen Bell, director for media relations at National Rural Electric Cooperative Association said that co-ops have two main missions. He stated, “providing reliable and affordable electricity and empowering their communities they serve”. Bell also explained that the role of co-ops members is to interact with board members, serve as advisory committee members and help the cooperative determine the community’s energy requirements. Many members of Twin County Electric Power Association claim that there is little or no transparency regarding energy costs and community engagement once they sign up. Tanner stated that he returned from One Voice more educated, connected with other members of the state, as well as having a new perspective on the importance understanding power companies. Lambright stated that they didn’t realize they had a voice or understood what it meant to be a member-owner. One Voice created the Electric Cooperative Leadership Institute in 2016, a program that is free and teaches 20-25 members how to read tax forms and bylaws. It also teaches them how to influence co-op decisions. Some attendees then host monthly meetings in their communities to share their successes and challenges. Spring 2019 will see the next round of leadership training. Since its inception, there have been some small successes: One group used rebate money for the renovation of a local playground; another received funding to start a college radio station. Lorraine Warfield, a resident of Hollandale in Mississippi, where Twin County Electric Power Association is located, was involved in the program two year ago. She said, “Knowing I have a share of this company, that got my wanting to be more involved.” Tanner, her neighbors, inspired her to campaign for Sarah Ann Hood in the Twin County board election. Hood is a local cooperative member. Warfield claimed she sent Hood at least 200 votes during the election, a feat considering many residents have never voted in an electric cooperative board race. The Institute for Local Self-Reliance reports that nearly three quarters of American cooperatives have less than 10 percent voter participation for board elections. Hood lost by 434 votes and the incumbent board members were reelected. Twin County representatives didn’t respond to questions regarding the voting process and the board. Perkins stated that he has not seen more members’ involvement than in previous years, but Warfield and other members claim that the voting process took place behind closed doors. The board also failed to answer their questions. Research has shown that the Southeastern states are the ones spending most on electricity despite being close to cheaper power sources. According to One Voice, West Virginia utility customers report that their monthly power bills run into the hundreds. Mississippi cooperative members spend over 42 percent of their income just on electricity. There is a movement underway at both the national and local levels to encourage cooperative members. Appalachian Voices is a non-profit advocacy group that mobilizes people to talk with providers about renewable energy, efficiency and rates in Tennessee. After discovering that some rural cooperatives were not following the rules, a Georgia nonprofit established transparency guidelines. This year’s Energy Democracy National Tour is being held by a group advocacy organizations. It highlights the work of low-income communities of color across the U.S. to develop local renewable energy resources and take control. Like investor-owned utilities electric cooperatives are heavily dependent on coal and are influenced by the fossil fuel sector. However, giving members more control of the cooperative could make a difference. Communities of color and low-income communities are most affected by pollution from coal ash and power plants. They are already suffering from the effects of climate changes. A 2017 study found that the Southern United States, already characterized by high poverty rates, will be more economically affected than any other part of the country. Advocates argue that restoring voting rights in these cooperatives and making sure vulnerable populations are equally represented can help them make decisions on renewable energy and other health issues. Huang stated that energy democracy aims to allow public ownership. “The current institution is moving at an accelerating pace toward privatization, so we want to transform to people-centered institutions.” Members of Twin County Electric Power Association want to continue educating the state’s marginalized about cooperatives and ensuring more transparency from the top. Tanner suggested that he may even consider running next year for the board. Warfield and Tanner plan to work together to make the voting process easier. Their goal is to get the cooperative to create more jobs, invest in community centers, youth programs, clean energy, and develop playgrounds. Warfield stated, “I would love them to do what they promised people.” “I want people to speak up and be empowered to get what cooperatives promised.” “I want to make it possible for the next generation to follow us and complete what we started.”