A few weeks ago, I received a notice in the mail with information about Blue Ridge Energy’s Annual Membership Meeting and Board of Directors election on June 28. If you buy your electricity from Blue Ridge, you probably did too. Many people may not realize it, but this is the most important piece of mail you’ll receive from Blue Ridge all year.

Blue Ridge Energy is a member-owned electric cooperative. According to their bylaws, they must have a yearly meeting where members (that’s us) can learn about what the co-op has been doing for the past twelve months and vote for our representatives on the board of directors. Voting is the primary way a co-op member like myself can participate in the democratic process of the co-op. Attending the annual meeting offers all members a chance to meet their directors and learn more about how the co-op operates. This year’s meeting is being held on Thursday, June 28 from 4-6 p.m. at Blue Ridge’s corporate headquarters in Lenoir.

Unfortunately, it is extremely difficult for members to attend the meeting and make their voice heard. First, it’s not centrally located, and most members will have to drive 30 to 90 minutes to get there. Secondly, the meeting is being held on a work day, during work hours.

Third, if you are able to attend, your time to comment is limited to one minute. This is particularly troublesome given that members are not allowed into the monthly board meetings, and the co-op doesn’t even post the meeting minutes online. Special member groups like the Member Advisory Committee also have closed meetings, and committee representatives are selected by the board and management.

Members’ lack of access to decision-making in the co-op undermines the principle of democratic participation, which is the foundation of what it means to be a cooperative in the first place. Blue Ridge Energy members have little ability to direct their co-op to invest in programs that benefit the community. This is one main reason why Blue Ridge continues to fall behind other co-ops in North Carolina and across the United States when it comes to living up to its potential as a cooperatively owned business.

The organization I work for, Appalachian Voices, has for the past five years called on Blue Ridge Energy to develop a financing program that would make home energy efficiency improvements affordable for everyone — including low-income residents and renters. However, the co-op has stubbornly stuck with its loan-based program which has served less than 50 households in more than two years. Meanwhile, nearly 300 members of Roanoke Electric Cooperative in eastern N.C. have benefitted from a more inclusive financing program during a similar time period.

An energy efficiency program like Roanoke’s is direly needed in the High Country. Thousands of our neighbors spend more than 20 percent of their income on energy costs each year and are struggling to pay their electric bills in the winter months, largely due to energy wasting homes and appliances. Blue Ridge can and should do more, but so far they’ve chosen not to.

Overall, Blue Ridge Energy has mostly relegated member ownership of the cooperative to a marketing slogan, with little real decision-making power given to actual members. But since Blue Ridge Energy is a cooperative, people like you and I own the business. We should have a say in how the business is run and be treated as owners, not just customers. That is why I’ll be at the Blue Ridge Energy Annual Membership Meeting to tell the board and management that I want them to do more for me and other members. I hope to see you there, too.

Appalachian Voices

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