Rural Electric Co-ops in Alabama Remain Way Behind the Solar Curve

In a survey, only one of 22 co-ops offered a community solar program, and none helped members with “pay as you save” home energy efficiency.

Employees from a Radian Generation change out a faulty solar inverter along a row of solar panels Dec. 4, 2017 in Oxford, Massachusetts. Credit: Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

Employees from a Radian Generation change out a faulty solar inverter along a row of solar panels Dec. 4, 2017 in Oxford, Massachusetts. Credit: Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

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When members of a small rural electric cooperative in southern Alabama were asked in a survey whether they would support a community solar project, they said yes and the co-op board went on to authorize a 100 kilowatt project.

“People said, ‘yeah, I will take it,’” recalled Ed Short, the president, CEO and general manager of Covington Electric Cooperative, which serves 23,000 homes and businesses in parts of six counties. “We have enough that have committed that we can go forward” without any subsidies from other members, he said. “It had to be financially sound.”

So now Covington has authorized the construction of what Short called a “solar garden,” the 100 kilowatt array to be shared by scores of members who will pay $20 a month to get some of their electricity from the panels. A 100 kilowatt system is roughly the size of 20 typical rooftop systems. 

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To Daniel Tait, the chief operating officer of Energy Alabama, a group working to make it easier and more equitable for Alabama residents to save energy and install renewable energy, Covington’s solar garden is an example of how rural electric cooperatives should be run.

“It’s how the democratic process can function,” said Tait, whose group on Tuesday published an energy democracy scorecard for Alabama jointly with Alabama Interfaith Power & Light, a faith-based group that works to promote renewable energy and reduce carbon emissions. 

Unfortunately, Tait said, Covington was the only one of 22 rural electric cooperatives in Alabama to even offer a community solar program. And none of the 22 cooperatives, including Covington, provide something called “pay as you save,” where cooperatives help low income residents finance home energy efficiency projects, with the payback linked to energy savings and tied to the meter, not an individual, according to the report.

Some allow members to pay back loans for energy efficiency upgrades on their electricity bills, but that can leave many households ineligible based on access to credit and renter status, the report concluded.

“Energy efficiency is the cheapest, lowest cost source of energy,” Tait said. “If we can reduce costs, we can have an enormous impact on day to day lives.” Efficiency is also the “cleanest of all resources” because “we are not using it, or we’re using less,” he said.

Across the nation, rural electric cooperatives extend from the suburbs to the most rural areas, serving some 42 million people across 56 percent of the country, according to the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association. Built on democratic principles, they are among the most successful and lasting legacies of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 1930s New Deal.

But they are also the target of a burgeoning energy democracy movement, with some member-owners demanding greater transparency and expanded access to renewable energy, often from insular elected boards.

Alabama’s electric cooperatives obtain most of the energy they provide from PowerSouth, a generation and transmission cooperative, or the Tennessee Valley Authority, an agency of the federal government. A quarter of the state’s residents are served by cooperatives, across 70 percent of the state’s area, according to the report.

Every Alabama co-op received a D or F in what the report categorizes as member programs, “revealing how electric cooperatives in Alabama are failing to provide their members with sustainable, cost-saving programs,” the report concluded. Even Covington got a D for member programs, in part because of what the report characterized as high monthly fees.

Representatives of the Alabama Rural Electric Association of Cooperatives, whose members include the 22 cooperatives in the state and their wholesale electricity providers, did not respond to emails and voice messages for comments on the report.

Short said he had talked to some of his counterparts at other cooperatives in the state and that the report was not being well received.

“Everybody has got their own opinions,” Short said. If the report’s authors “have preconceived notions, they are going to slant it toward that,” he added.

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The Alabama report was modeled after one done for Tennessee’s electric cooperatives, led by the group Appalachian Voices.

Across the Tennessee map, Appalachian Voices had assigned a lot of C’s, D’s and F’s, finding that most co-ops in Tennessee have a long way to go to be more responsive to their members, including providing workable energy efficiency programs and solar offerings. 

Tait said the Alabama findings were based on records and policies that members and the public can learn from cooperatives’ own websites, as well as from followup requests for information from the cooperatives. Some cooperatives chose not to respond to those follow ups, he said.

Most received grades of C’s, D’s and F’s for governance criteria, like access to board meetings and board documents on websites. More than a third of the Alabama cooperatives do not allow their members to attend board meetings, the report found. Only half of Alabama cooperatives have their bylaws posted on their website, the report found.

The report concluded that lack of information about cooperative governance on websites is an “obstacle to democratic member control.”

Tait said cooperatives have a lot more they can do, especially to help low income members.

Alabama, he said, has some of the highest energy burdens in the country, with high numbers of low income families struggling to pay for heating and cooling. “Oftentimes you hear about that in the urban areas of the state, like Montgomery and Birmingham,” he said. “But it’s in the rural areas as well,” where the cooperatives are dominant.

For his part, Short said he’s not concerned about the groups’ scorecard.

“I am more concerned about a survey from Covington members than a survey from Alabama Energy.”