Guest column: Members should govern co-ops, not Public Utilities Commission
I read with interest the opinion column in the Feb. 7 Post Bulletin written by Dan Nemes, headlined "Will legislators backtrack on energy?," and feel compelled to share the actual purpose of Senate File 141 and House File 234.
This legislation does not "deliver a one-two punch to clean, renewable energy in our state," as stated by Nemes. The proposed legislation does, however, clarify that cooperative governance lies with the board of directors who are elected by members of the cooperative, not the Public Utilities Commission.
Cooperatives are different than investor-owned utilities that are regulated by the PUC. In rural electric cooperatives, the members who receive electric service nominate and elect who they want to represent them on the board of directors to set policy, rates and fees. Any member can run for the board.
The elected board members live and work in the communities that they represent on the board. They are trained and educated to fully understand the operations and financials of the rural electric cooperative and they make decisions that are in the best interest of the majority of the members and for the Cooperative as a whole.
At the cooperatives in Southeast Minnesota that Nemes refers to, members can also participate on a Member Advisory Committee that serves as a sounding board for the cooperative's board and staff. At People's Energy Cooperative, the committee meets quarterly and we discuss a variety of topics and seek our members' feedback. The 39 members of the committee are also invited to a monthly board meeting so they can witness the board in action and gain even more understanding about the complexities of operating an electric utility.
During our meetings, MAC members can see that the board determines rates and fees utilizing data from cost-of-service studies conducted by an independent third party and that they aren't "oblique and capricious," as Nemes states in his opinion column.
Each spring we hold our annual meeting and each fall we hold several member meetings to provide updates on how the cooperative is doing and information about key initiatives. All members are welcome to attend these meetings and encouraged to do so through a variety of communication channels. At these meetings, we have "publicly aired how solar and wind affect the grid", so that our members understand that we are not anti-renewables and are working through the challenges that distributed generation presents any utility.
This leads me to Nemes' opinion that cooperatives are against renewable energy. Nothing could be further from the truth. People's Energy Cooperative, MiEnergy and Freeborn Mower Electric Cooperative jointly own a 500-kW solar facility located on the south side of Oronoco. People's also owns a 250 kW community solar array on the south side of Elgin. Cooperative members can purchase panels on this array; the energy produced is applied to their bill to offset the actual energy use at their home or business.
Nemes asked the question "What do the utilities want to hide and why are our lawmakers in St. Paul abetting them in their obfuscation?" I can answer that: Electric cooperatives are hiding nothing and most of our local representatives know that because many have taken the time to understand the cooperative business model and actively engage with our members, their continuants.
I welcome the opportunity to meet with Nemes and invite him to visit People's Energy Cooperative so he can see firsthand that we are a local electric distribution cooperative, owned by members who receive electricity from us. We provide electric service to approximately 24,000 accounts in six counties in southeastern Minnesota and I welcome the opportunity to show him that decisions are made in the best interest of all members by people who are best suited to make those decisions -- the members themselves.