Customers of rural electric cooperatives are more than just electric customers; they are members and owners of a cooperative enterprise.
For this episode of the Local Energy Rules Podcast, host John Farrell speaks with Kevin Williams, a longtime Colorado organizer currently serving on the Delta Montrose Electric Cooperative board. They discuss how cooperative member-owners mobilized and campaigned for transparency, flexibility, and affordability from their electricity service provider.
Listen to the full episode and explore more resources below — including a transcript and summary of the conversation.
|Kevin Williams:||The first full year with Guzman Energy, the DMMA last year, and it allowed us to reduce our wholesale costs by 4.7 million. And we have not had a rate increase since 2018 and we just had our annual meeting. DMEA did, and we have no rate increase plan through 2023. So being able to stabilize rates for five years has provided a real economic boost to our members when everything else is going through the roof right now with, you know, inflation and supply chain issues and things like that. It’s a real, real selling point, I think, for members of a co-op.|
|John Farrell:||The Local Energy Rules Podcast has featured a number of interviews with leaders at rural electric cooperatives doing great things on renewable energy, from Kit Carson to Kauai Island to Holy Cross in Colorado. But we sometimes overlook, in these tales of what’s great now, is the organizing work that enabled these seismic shifts from fossil energy to clean energy and from insular to open. Kevin Williams, longtime organizer with the Western Colorado Alliance, joined me in June, 2022 to talk about the grassroots work that helped to transform the Delta Montrose Electric Association and how it enabled big changes in the cooperative’s service. I’m John Farrell, Director of the Energy Democracy Initiative at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and this is Local Energy Rules, a biweekly podcast sharing powerful stories about local, renewable energy. Kevin, welcome to Local Energy Rules.|
|Kevin Williams:||Thanks John. Glad to be here.|
|John Farrell:||So you know, like I mentioned in the introduction, you’re currently on the board of the Delta Montrose Electric Association, it’s a rural electric cooperative in Colorado. Could you just tell us a little bit about the area it serves and sort of how you ended up on the board?|
|Kevin Williams:||Sure. I’d be happy to. So Delta Montrose Electric Association, I’m gonna refer to them as DMEA, hope that’s okay. Their service territory encompasses two counties in Western Colorado. So as you can imagine from the name, Delta and Montrose counties. And both counties are rural, they’re very sparsely populated. As you might expect, they’re quite conservative politically. Agriculture is a big part of the local economy in both counties. I believe that Delta County has the largest number of organic farms in the state of Colorado. So it’s quite a hub for organic agriculture. Other major industries, probably no surprise, healthcare, tourism and recreation, and building. And in the building and construction industry, Delta county at one time had three underground coal mines, but only one is operating today. And that’s the West Elk Mine in Delta county.
DMEA has 29,600 members, 118 employees. And that includes its Elevate Fiber Optic subsidiary. And I’ve been involved as a co-op member off and on for most of my life. I know we’ll talk about that some more. And I’ve had an interest in serving on the board for many years, but as a full-time community organizer, I was constantly traveling, you know, throughout the West and Midwest and I just didn’t have the time or attention to devote to it. My circumstances changed, I retired as a full-time organizer in late 2019, and in August of 2021, my representative to the DMEA board passed away shortly after winning election. So that opened up a vacancy. I applied for the position along with five other applicants. And after being interviewed by the board, I was fortunate enough to be appointed to the position.
My term runs through June of 2024, at which time, you know, I need to decide if I wanna run for in this case, it would really be election, not reelection <laugh>. And maybe as a point of reference for your listeners, DMEA a is governed by a nine person board with one third of the seats up for election every year. And no board member can serve more than four consecutive three year terms.
|John Farrell:||So, you know, electric cooperatives are a rather unique kind of electric utility because they’re owned by their members. Now in response to some co-op decisions, Western Colorado Alliance organized several campaigns of co-op members in the 1980s and the 1990s. Can you talk about what some of those campaigns were intended to accomplish?|
|Kevin Williams:||I’d be happy to, and actually in preparation for this podcast, I went back and did a bunch of homework and dug into my old files to make sure I was telling, you know, the correct story here. So again, for your listeners, the Western Colorado Alliance, it’s a nonprofit grassroots group here in Western Colorado that brings people together to build their power, no pun intended through community organizing and leadership development. So I’ve been a member for 40 years and an active leader.
So to your question, yes, over the years, the – I’m gonna call ’em the Alliance – and it’s local chapters… We had a local chapter here in Montrose County and also one in Delta County. We played a major role in transforming DMEA into the co-op it is today. We ran several campaigns, mostly in the mid eighties through the mid nineties and it involved co-op members. And I’d like to highlight three in particular.
So the first campaign, and interestingly, you mentioned this in your lead in, the first campaign involved a proposal by DME to remove itself from the regulatory oversight of the state public utilities commissioner. And that was following some state legislation that had passed. And as you correctly noted in your lead in, most co-ops today are not regulated at the state level. And we could talk a little bit more about that. So at the time DMEA was regulated by the state public utilities commission, and the Alliance felt that it was in the best interest of co-op members that they remain regulated. Again, this was quite some time ago. The board and the management of the co-op disagreed. The Alliance felt that the board lacked transparency and was not putting the interest of its member owners first. So the question of deregulation was actually submitted to the co-op members for a vote, which is one of the nice things about co-ops is they’re… Most of them are structured in a way that important issues can be referred to the members for votes. And as I recall, I couldn’t find the actual numbers, but it did pass by I think, a pretty comfortable margin. And although we lost that campaign, it set the wheels in motion for additional organizing work over the next decade or so.
So I wanna sort of take a side trip here for a sec and talk about, in theory, electric co-ops are regulated by their members who elect representatives to the board that in turn acts in the best interests of the co-ops members. So again, you mentioned this in the lead in, but as we all know, there’s often a gap between theory and practice. And I now believe, I didn’t believe this 25 years ago, but I now believe it’s not necessary for the state to regulate a well-functioning, transparent co-op that’s committed to democratic member control. I understand that not all co-ops clear that bar <laugh> and sadly, and this is true. I think of our democracy, overall, many people in our country and communities don’t feel as though they have a voice. They don’t feel that the democratic process is responsive to their needs. And as a result, it’s often difficult to get members involved in their co-op unless their bull is really being gored. You know, and typically that involves a rate increase, in my experience.
The second campaign involved a proposed 1.5 million rate increase by DMEA a that would’ve raised the monthly base rate charge from $2 and 64 cents to $12. Our analysis found that the rate increase would’ve unfairly put the bulk of the increase on residential customers and the substantial increase in the base charge also would’ve discouraged members from saving energy. So the Alliance, we turned out dozens of co-op members to co-op meetings. There were informational meetings, there were public meetings and we presented a detailed alternative proposal to the co-op board. And we ultimately convinced them to scale back the base rate from $12, which is what they were recommending to $5. So we didn’t get all that we wanted, but we felt like that was a pretty significant win.
The third campaign, I wanna quickly highlight involved a group of co-op members that were challenging a proposed decrease in rates. So your listeners may say, wait a minute, <laugh> you might ask isn’t that a good thing, but the devil is in the details. Under the proposal, DMEA wanted to stimulate more electricity sales by decreasing rates for only the largest residential and small commercial customers. And that’s known as a declining block rate structure and the, again, the Alliance organized co-op members, we presented the board with what we called our fair share proposal, and we ultimately persuaded the board to modify that proposal so that it was more favorable to all residential and small commercial customers, not just those that were using more energy.
So those are three campaigns. I know I just covered a lot there, but I would say that all three of those campaigns had an influence in shifting DMEA’s programs, its policies and its culture. And don’t take my word for it. So former DMEA general manager, Dan McClendon, who was a guest speaker at a number of our events over the years, he is on record as saying that the grassroots efforts of the Western Colorado Alliance played an important role in changing the way that DMEA does business. And I think that’s almost an exact quote from a former general manager. So there was a lot there <laugh>
|John Farrell:||No, this is very helpful in understanding the role that that organizing played and, and really, I think upholding the idea of how a co-op is supposed to work. The idea that members can organize, can come to management can with their votes or even with their proposals change the direction of the co-op. I was interested in asking a little bit more, you know, you’re on the board. Now, there have been other folks who have talked about how the board has changed over the years. So not just that the decisions were changed, but also that the board has changed to be kind of more engaged with the community, more focused on things like clean energy. You know, I actually spoke with Ed Marston, who is a former DMEA board member who’s now since passed away, unfortunately, back in 2016 on this podcast, I love that he described himself as the first quote hippie on the board. And I was curious if his election was, you know, maybe at least in part due to the success of the organizing. And I was curious how else, I mean, you gave that great quote from Dan McClendon, but I’m just curious if there were other ways in which the cooperative leadership has been changed by your organizing work.|
|Kevin Williams:||Well, that’s, that’s a very good question. And again, it made me dust off my cobwebs and think about some history here. So I think, and by the way, Ed Marston was a terrific member of the board and a terrific person and member of our community. We were so sad when he did pass away. I think it is fair to say that our organizing work contributed at least in part to Ed winning an election to the DMEA board. And I would also say to an eventual seismic shift in terms of who serves on the board. So over a period of, again, about 10 years, when we were running all of these campaigns, we invested significant time and resources in recruiting and electing candidates to the board. Most of whom ran on a platform of open meetings, member access to information, energy efficiency, and consumer protections.
And eventually, and this was before Ed actually won his seat, eight of the nine board members were removed. And again, to quote Dan McClendon, through what he described as a member uprising. A lot of that had to do with rates. Some of the campaigns that I talked about previously, so not long after that intense period of organizing, when we elected a bunch of new people to the board, Ed ran and won, and he was on the board for 18 years. And I believe Ed when he said he was the first hippie on the board.
|John Farrell:||I should add that the interview with Ed was really terrific. My colleague who likes puns too much was probably too much involved in the writing of the summary of it. But Ed described what cooperatives are dealing with as a form of “fossil fuel serfdom.” And I think it’s really interesting to contrast that then with some of the clean energy progress that Delta Montrose has make and other co-ops have made. So I, for people who wanna understand the context of how cooperatives are able to make change, even if their members are on board, his interview, I think is really valuable.
Now, one of the things I thought that was interesting is, so in the interview I did with Ed, he mentioned that there was one board member on DMEA that was saying back when he was on the board, that it could get half of, the co-op could get half of its electricity from local and renewable sources by 2025. Has the cooperative’s leadership transformation made that possible? And, and even if it hasn’t reached that goal, what kind of changes did it enable?
|Kevin Williams:||Well, I would say that the change in the leadership has made that possible. We’re not there yet. I don’t know who Ed was speaking about. I wracked my brain when I was thinking about this, I think that goal is doable, but not by 2025, which I think, you know, Ed mentioned that particular board member thought we could be there, but DMEA is taking a number of positive steps toward developing more local, renewable energy. So I wanna share a couple.
So for starters, DMEA partnered with Uncompahgre Valley Water Users Association to develop what’s called the south canal hydropower project. It’s on an existing irrigation canal here in the valley, in the valley and Uncompahgre Valley. And that particular project has 9.7 megawatts of name plate capacity, and provides DMEA with about 4.6% of its power. So that was a, a pretty significant, you know, first step in terms of developing hydropower. And I was pleased to see that on an existing canal, because years before that the Alliance was involved in opposing a project that would’ve taken water out of the, out of the Gunnison river, which is now a wild and scenic river. So anyway, so that was a very good step.
So in 2020, you may know this, DMEA was the second distribution co-op in the Tri-State network – So Tri-State Generation and transmission is a big G&T co-op. Kit Carson in New Mexico was the first and we exited, DMEA exited its long term power supply contract and now secures its wholesale power from Guzman Energy. And this will allow DMEA the flexibility to generate up to 20% of its power locally. And for reference for your listeners, Tri-State, under the Tri-State contract, DMEA was only allowed to generate 5% of its power locally. So by exiting Tri-State and going with Guzman, we now have the flexibility, DMEA does, to generate 20% locally to follow through on that commitment.
DMEA and Guzman, as I speak currently, are refiling an application with the Delta County Commissioners to build what’s called the Garnet Mesa solar project. And if approved, this 80 megawatt solar project would produce enough local energy to power roughly 18,000 homes. And that would definitely boost DMEA local power generation up to 20%. And although Guzman doesn’t publicize the makeup of its generation publicly, it has made, it’s known, it has a reputation and a commitment to focus on an optimal portfolio of energy that’s centered on renewables. So those have been positive steps.
And the last thing I’d like to say here is I mentioned Kit Carson, and I would encourage your listeners to learn more about the efforts of Kit Carson Electric Co-op in New Mexico. Kit Carson recently announced that a hundred percent of its daytime power across its service area will be produced with solar energy. And it’s anticipating reducing its utility bill by 25% and Kit Carson has 18 solar arrays producing 36 megawatts of power. And they also have enough battery storage to provide four hours of power if they need it, you know, in an outage or a weather event or something like that. That’s another co-op that I would highly recommend your listeners take a look at, cause they’re doing some great work.
|John Farrell:||I’m so glad you mentioned it because I had a wonderful conversation with their general manager, Luis Reyes, I think it was last year on this podcast about what they’ve managed to accomplish and kind of what they have in the future beyond the a hundred percent daytime solar you let me know about that happening as, as well as some of their other initiatives. And I just loved too, that part of that story, like with Delta Montrose was thinking about local energy and they, even what they did, I thought, that was particularly interesting is they said, oh, well, we could do something kind of in the nature of the Garnet Mesa project, like, you know, one big project within the service territory, or we could actually even split up that project. And they found that it wasn’t terribly much more expensive to split it into a bunch of smaller projects. As you kind of indicated, you know, 18 different solar arrays and scattered about the service territory, because the members were like, well, we want it near us. We wanna be able to see it too, which I thought was terrific. So such a great story. I’m so glad that you mentioned them. Cool.|
|Kevin Williams:||Yeah. And you know, I think diversity is an important principle, no matter what we’re talking about. And I think for co-ops, the more they can diversify their power supply, the better.|
|John Farrell:||We’re going to take a short break. When we come back, we discuss the importance of flexibility in allowing electric cooperatives to take advantage of local clean energy, why co-ops are investing in fiber internet access for members, and we get Kevin’s advice for organizing your fellow cooperative members. You’re listening to a Local Energy Rules podcast with Kevin Williams about the member organizing that led to significant changes at the Delta Montrose Electric Cooperative in Western Colorado.
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|John Farrell:||Similar to this topic, and I, you kind of referenced it here in the, in the contrast between the Tri-State contract that Delta Montrose had, you know, only allowed 5% local power generation, the Guzman contract, obviously not only are you able to generate up to 20%, but you already have plans to get up to 20% local generation. This seems to be such a through line in these conversations about co-ops that have done cool things.
There’s the Kauai Island Cooperative in Hawaii, you know, they’re on a literal island, right? So they have to generate their own electricity. They don’t have someone else that can provide it. I actually just published an interview this week with Brian Hannigan. He’s the CEO at Holy Cross Energy in Colorado – something in the water, something must be in the water in Colorado among these co-ops, it’s just… and they’re going for a hundred percent renewable by 2030. And he, what he kept saying, I thought was amazing. He’s like we kept finding out we could do it twice as fast at half the cost. And again, flexibility was a big part of them. Their wholesale contract ended back in the nineties when the wholesale provider went bankrupt. And then Farmers Electric Co-op in Iowa, which is, I just love this story. Cause they’ve got like 600 members, very small. And again, they didn’t have any of these long term contracts which Ed, as I mentioned before, kind of called fossil fuel serfdom.
I guess, is there, is there more that you would like to share about what Delta Montrose is able to do with that flexibility? Do you have, for example, do you imagine that there might be more plans to even increase that number? I don’t know how long your contract lasts with Guzman, if you’d have more flexibility there, or even if there’s a partnership that would allow you to do that. Yeah. I’m just curious if there’s more you’re thinking about that you, that you could see co-ops doing with that kind of flexibility, or even are there other co-ops nearby you that are currently served by Tri-State that you’re talking to about the advantages of this new contract?
|Kevin Williams:||So again, yes, I’m obviously not speaking in an official capacity as a board member today, but I, I think some of these changes that Delta Montrose has made and other co-ops are making does give us a lot more flexibility. And I think the co-op is looking at all kinds of options to generate more local renewable energy. And to your point about other co-ops, there are three additional co-ops here in Western Colorado, and I’m not gonna name them cuz I might get them wrong, but they just negotiated with Tri-State an arrangement where they are going to get half of their power from another wholesale power provider. And one is La Plata Electric. I think one is Sam Miguel power, and I’m gonna miss the third one. So they didn’t go quite as far as DMEA and Kit Carson did in terms of completely exiting the contract. But they’ve reached a deal that they think is in the best interest of their member owners. And it’s gonna give them more flexibility to build and develop local, renewable energy and United Power, which is the largest co-op in the Tri-State system, 20% of Tri-State’s power is United Power. They are also looking at exiting their contract. And if that were to take place, I think that would, that would really shake up the tri-state system. I would imagine <laugh>|
|John Farrell:||Yeah, no doubt. One of the things I think is really striking and I think helpful for people who are involved in the clean energy space to understand what’s so exciting about co-ops is that co-ops have this sort of broad vision of helping to sustain the community, the community’s economy, much more broadly than just a utility company that generates electricity. I’m wondering if you could talk a little bit about why Delta Montrose, like many other co-ops, started making investments in for example, fiber internet access.|
|Kevin Williams:||I’d love to, and I’m guessing your listeners are very savvy about this and understand why this is important, but reliable and affordable high speed Internet for rural Americans is absolutely essential these days. And rural communities have been underserved since the Internet’s invention and much like they did in the 1930s. You know, when rural co-ops stepped up and electrified rural America when investor owned utilities were not willing or able to do that, co-ops are taking measures into their own hands all over the country. And broadband is really critical to rural communities and it also plays a key role in modern co-op operations. So particularly when fiber parallels the electric system, the benefits accrue to every member of the co-op, even if they are not subscribing to the internet.
I wanna explain that a little bit. So for members that subscribe to broadband, they gain access to high speed internet and all the advantages of a smart grid, right? And for members that don’t subscribe to broadband, they still benefit and they can save money from being connected to the smart grid. So for example, the fiber operations improves grid reliability and efficiency. It helps pinpoint outages. It helps speed restoration of power during weather events. And it also gives members the information and tools they need to make choices about how they use energy. And you know, this is the, the smart homes, the beneficial electrification, you know, all this stuff, all these new technologies that are just growing by leaps and bounds. Having the fiber optic system parallel the electric system gives a co-op huge advantages in that area. So I wanna just quickly mention that in 2021, DMEA has continued to push forward its fiber optic network. It added 280 miles to its network to its fiber network. More than 60% of DMEA’s members now have access to gigabit Internet. And we have, DMEA has 10,000 members who have subscribed just one week ago.
So this is a fun thing I wanted to share with your listeners, DMEA and the city of Montrose, so that’s the largest city in our territory about 20,000 people, celebrated the fact that the city of Montrose is now recognized as a gigabit city and, you know, earning that recognition requires access to one gigabit per second of fiber internet service for the majority of the residents in the city. And here’s a fun fact, Denver, the city of Denver, which has 760,000 people is not a gigabit city. Montrose, Colorado with 20,000 people is. And I think that really demonstrates the power of rural electric co-ops – no pun intended.
|John Farrell:||No, I just think this is such an amazing story. I also, I don’t know if you have it handy, but we’re just curious if you happen to know how much internet access costs under DMEAs fiber internet subsidiary. Because one of the things I think that people don’t appreciate in this terms of like a competitiveness is that what I’ve seen is not only the do rural areas, like, you know, much of rural North Dakota, for example, because of co-ops, has faster internet than many of the major cities in the Midwest, but they also pay less for it too, which I think is really striking. Do you have happen to have some of the prices in front of you?|
|Kevin Williams:||I don’t have them in front of me and rather than share something that’s not gonna be correct. I mean, we have, so my partner Brenda and I have elevate internet, so our fiber optic fiber optic subsidiaries called elevate. And we have that here at our home. That’s been just wonderful. We’ve had it for five years. And my recollection is that we pay 54.95 a month for the service. I don’t know how that compares to other, you probably, you may know better than I, how that compares, or if that’s in the ballpark.|
|John Farrell:||It’s pretty hard to get internet service from a cable company in an urban area for anything less than 80 or 90. And that’s usually on a promo pricing plan that wow, six months from now, they’ll jack up the rate. And if you’re lucky, they’ll tell you they do it before they do it. And if you’re unlucky, you just have to make a thing on your calendar, like check what my prices are now. And then you have to call them every six months to get them to stop doing that to you. Or you can try to switch. I’m super lucky. I live in Minneapolis. We have one of the few competitive broadband markets. So we have something called U.S. Internet, which is an independent business that only does internet and only serves this community here. So I’m able to get access similar to what you have, but for most urban residents, sadly, that is not the case. I think it’s a really great story of how cooperatives are making this, in some ways, not just as good as what city folk have, but better, which is terrific.|
|Kevin Williams:||You know, we’re talking a lot about local, renewable energy, which rightly we should be. But I also wanted to mention, cuz I think it’s important that I like to say that for co-op members, there’s a lot of support out there in the country for local, renewable energy development. But if you do the math, in other words, if you actually sit down and crunch the numbers and look at what it costs to procure wholesale power from local, renewable energy sources, you’re gonna find that it’s a, it’s the best deal for co-op members and it’s gonna keep rates stable. And in Kit Carson’s case, actually they’re talking about reducing their rates. And last 2021 was the first year that DMEA, the first full year with Guzman Energy, that DMEA last year. And it allowed us to reduce our wholesale cost by 4.7 million. And we have not had a rate increase since 2018. And we just had our annual meeting, our DMEA did, and we have no rate increase plan through 2023. So being able to stabilize rates for five years has provided a real economic boost to our members when everything else is going through the roof right now with, you know, inflation and supply chain issues and things like that. It’s a real, real selling point, I think for, for members of a co-op.|
|John Farrell:||Absolutely Kevin. I was hoping to wrap up by asking you what advice you might have. You know, you have worked with organizers, grassroots advocates and co-op members. You know, there was a lot of folks who are customers of co-ops – or member owners of co-ops, rather, across the country whose co-ops haven’t really taken advantage of local, renewable energy or broadband. How should they get started? Are there any resources that you suggest they look into, tools they can use? You know, other stories that they could listen to to kind of inspire them to start doing this work.|
|Kevin Williams:||I love this question cause it’s right up my alley as a community organizer. <laugh> I would say if there’s a group of members in a co-op and you care about your co-op and perhaps you may have concerns that the co-op is maybe not on the right track, or you’d like to see your co-op doing, you know, more than they are in terms of developing local energy or keeping rates stable, et cetera, whatever it might be. Uh, my advice is get together with your fellow co-op members, maybe share some food, cause that’s always a good thing. Share your story, share your concerns and, and then plan a campaign. You know, that’s doable, that’s realistic and push for change in your co-op because John, as you mentioned at the very outset co-ops are uniquely structured, they’re member owned. There’s lots of opportunities for people to get involved and make a change.
Some very specific tips that I would offer from my experience: read your co-ops bylaws, their articles of incorporation and their board policies. All of those things should be available publicly available to members, make your co-op play by its own rules. So if they have a rule on the books, it could be in the bylaws, it could be in a policy and it’s a decent rule, but in your judgment, they’re not following it, make them play by their own rules, attend board meetings on a regular basis, deliver a consistent message, encourage media, ongoing media coverage of your co-op. If you are attending a board meeting or an annual meeting, be courteous but strong when expressing your positions and related to that, give credit where credit is due. So if your co-op is doing something important and valuable for the community, recognize those positive steps and recognize those in public. Recruit, obviously recruit members to run for the board, support their campaigns expose closed and secret processes. Not every co-op is perhaps as transparent as they should be. And I would say also meet with the general manager on ongoing basis and some of the key staff in management, those are all important things.
So in regards to resources, I have absolutely nothing to gain by saying this <laugh>. I cannot think of a better resource than the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. And for your listeners, John did not pay me to say that <laugh>, I’ve known the Institute for Local Self Reliance for 20, 25 years. They do terrific work. I couldn’t recommend a better resource. The other resource that I would recommend for those that are interested in reforming their co-ops is the Western Organization of Resource Councils has what they call their principles of community organizing training. It’s a four day training. There’s one coming up this August in Billings, Montana. It’s a terrific training and it’s nationally recognized and it provides all the tools and resources and best practices that members of a co-op need to champion energy democracy. One co-op at a time. So I would say between the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and the work organizing training, you would be well outfitted to go make your co-op better.
|John Farrell:||Well, Kevin, thank you so much for joining me to tell the story of the organizing work that you were involved in in Western Colorado to change Delta Montrose, that has inspired a lot of other folks already in terms of what change is possible. Really appreciate you taking the time.|
|Kevin Williams:||My pleasure, John, and thank you for the opportunity.|
|John Farrell:||Thank you so much for listening to this episode of Local Energy Rules, where I was joined by Kevin Williams, to talk about the member organizing that led to significant changes that the Delta Montrose Electric Cooperative in Western Colorado. On the show page, look for links to rural electric cooperative resources from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance covering both clean energy and broadband as well as the training Kevin recommended with the Western Organization of Resource Councils and a link to the rural electric cooperative toolkit, a project of 11 rural-focused allies. You can also find a link to our 2016 interview with Ed Marston, a former Delta Montrose board member who spoke about the quote fossil fuel serfdom that has limited so many cooperatives progress on clean energy. Local Energy Rules is produced by myself and Maria McCoy with editing provided by audio engineer Drew Birschbach. Tune back into Local Energy Rules every two weeks to hear more powerful stories of communities taking on concentrated power to transform the energy system. Until next time, keep your energy local and thanks for listening.|
Members Control Electric Cooperatives, but They Must Exercise That Control
As democratic member control is one of the seven cooperative principles, member-owners vote on cooperative leadership and have a say in their cooperative’s decision making. However, ILSR’s research found that 72 percent of electric cooperatives have voter turnouts of less than 10 percent.
It’s not necessary for the state to regulate a well-functioning, transparent co-op that’s committed to democratic member control… not all co-ops clear that bar.
Most cooperative members do not get involved in cooperative decisions unless “their bull is really being gored,” says Williams. Essentially, member-owners do not pay attention to cooperative affairs unless their rates are increasing. Williams describes a “member uprising” in response to rate increases in which eight of Delta Montrose Electric Association’s nine board members were removed. Members elected Ed Marston to the board after this uprising.
Listen to our Local Energy Rules interview with Ed Marston, former Board Member of the Delta Montrose Electric Association.
Campaigning for Change at the Delta Montrose Electric Association
Few cooperative member-owners are as active in their membership as Kevin Williams. Williams has been a co-op customer and member-owner, has organized other co-op members as part of the Western Colorado Alliance, and now sits on the Delta Montrose Electric Association board.
Williams describes the Western Colorado Alliance as an organization dedicated to “community organizing and leadership development.” Its co-op organizing platform is centered on transparency, energy efficiency, and consumer protections. Williams discusses three of the Alliance’s organizing campaigns that targeted Delta Montrose Electric Association:
- Advocating against Delta Montrose’s bid for deregulation. The Alliance lost the campaign (Delta Montrose successfully deregulated), but Williams says this campaign set the foundation for further co-op organizing.
- Fighting against a 1.5 million dollar rate increase by Delta Montrose. Williams feels this campaign was a success; rather than increasing the base rate from $2.64 to $12.00, Delta Montrose settled for an increase to $5.00.
- Successfully blocking the implementation of a proposed declining block structure, which would reward customers who use the most electricity.
After 40 years of organizing with the Alliance, Williams retired in 2019. When there was an opening on the Delta Montrose Electric Association board in 2021, he applied for the position and will serve his appointed term until an election in 2024.
We played a major role in transforming DMEA into the co-op it is today.
Delta Montrose Leaves a Limiting Contract
Delta Montrose Electric Association (DMEA) serves 29,600 member-owners in two western Colorado counties: Delta and Montrose. The cooperative offers both electric and fiber optic Internet services. Williams describes Delta and Montrose counties as agricultural communities that also depend on their healthcare, tourism, and construction industries.
In 2020, Delta Montrose became the second distribution cooperative to leave the Tri-State Generation and Transmission network. Kit Carson, a distribution co-op in New Mexico, was the first. Delta Montrose now gets its wholesale power supply from Guzman Energy. Its contract with Guzman Energy allows the co-op more flexibility than its contract with Tri-State; Delta Montrose can now generate 20 percent of its electricity locally, whereas under Tri-State, the co-op could only generate 5 percent of its electricity.
Together, the South Canal Hydropower Project and a proposed solar energy project will get Delta Montrose to its 20 percent local generation threshold.
After leaving the Tri-State Generation and Transmission network, Kit Carson Electric Cooperative set a goal for 100 percent solar power in the daytime.
Delta Montrose has not increased its electricity rates since 2018, says Williams. Additionally, through its contract with Guzman Energy, the co-op reduced its wholesale costs by 4.7 million dollars last year.
Organizing Advice for Cooperative Member-Owners
Williams has many tips for listeners who want to create change at their electric cooperative. First, he says, get together with other co-op members and plan a campaign. He also suggests that organizers read the bylaws and “make your co-op play by its own rules.” Be consistent with your message, courteous, but strong with your language, and invite media coverage to spread the word. Finally, he says to “give credit where credit is due.” If your co-op is doing a good job, acknowledge and celebrate what they are doing well.
Co-ops are uniquely structured, they’re member owned. There’s lots of opportunities for people to get involved and make a change.
There are many resources available for those organizing co-op member engagement campaigns. The New Economy Coalition has a Rural Electric Cooperative Toolkit, the Climate Cabinet has a Guide for Cooperative Leaders, and Energy Democracy Y’all has created co-op scorecards for Alabama, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia.
Listen to our 2019 interview with Liz Veazey and Chris Woolery, two of the organizers behind the Rural Electric Cooperative Toolkit.
Williams also recommends the Western Organization of Resource Councils’ Principles of Community Organizing training.
See these resources for more behind the story:
- Read ILSR’s report on the challenges rural electric cooperatives face (and the tools they have to overcome them).
- Explore the Rural Electric Cooperative toolkit and listen to our 2019 Local Energy Rules interview with two of the organizers behind it.
- Listen to episode 33 of Local Energy Rules, an interview with former Delta Montrose Board Member Ed Marston.
- Listen to General Manager Luis Reyes’s account of how Kit Carson’s exit from Tri-State Generation and Transmission allowed the co-op to target 100 percent daytime solar power — without sacrificing affordability or reliability.
- Listen to a recent Local Energy Rules interview featuring Bryan Hannegan, President and CEO of Holy Cross Energy (a rural electric cooperative in Colorado).
- Find out how a Colorado Law Creates Transparency at Rural Electric Co-ops
For concrete examples of how towns and cities can take action toward gaining more control over their clean energy future, explore ILSR’s Community Power Toolkit.
Explore local and state policies and programs that help advance clean energy goals across the country, using ILSR’s interactive Community Power Map.
This is the 161st episode of Local Energy Rules, an ILSR podcast with Energy Democracy Director John Farrell, which shares powerful stories of successful local renewable energy and exposes the policy and practical barriers to its expansion.
Local Energy Rules is Produced by ILSR’s John Farrell and Maria McCoy. Audio engineering by Drew Birschbach.
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