It took Cleotra Tanner more than 60 years to learn he was a partial owner of Twin County Electric Power Association in rural Mississippi. Tanner, a longtime local NAACP leader, said that he never heard about meetings, potential changes to energy sources, or board elections, and was not informed about how the relationship between electric cooperatives and members worked. He only knew the bills were exorbitantly high — and figured there was nothing he could do.
Tanner has lived his entire life in Isola, a small town 80 miles north of Jackson in Humphreys County. Two years ago, he was introduced to One Voice, a nonprofit focused on civic engagement in Mississippi that offers free training programs about how to engage, vote and run for boards of electric cooperatives, which are not-for-profit electric utilities owned by their members. One Voice’s goal is to empower people to challenge an unequal racial and economic power dynamic among cooperatives in the state, lower costly utility bills, and push energy leaders to reinvest in rural communities.
“We don’t have any voice in it,” said Tanner, who now leads community meetings for One Voice. “Now we’re enlightening people, and we’re trying to take a stand.”
Since cooperatives are not for-profit, unlike investor-owned utilities, they have more flexibility and can be accountable to members’ feedback. After bills have been paid, leftover money is supposed to be returned to members and used to invest in parks, community centers, and schools.
But there are glaring demographic disparities between those who run electric cooperatives and those who buy energy from them. Mississippi is nearly 40 percent black, but electric cooperative boards are only 6.6 percent black. Twin County Electric Power Association, which services 12,600 customers in five Mississippi Delta counties, has nine board members — all of them men and only one person of color. (Twin County did not respond to a request to interview board members.)
This is common throughout the South: a 2016 study found only 90 black board members out of 3,000 at 313 Southern electric cooperatives. That percentage is still virtually the same as it was in 1984, when black Mississippi cooperative members filed a lawsuit charging racial discrimination. There’s little state or federal oversight of these cooperatives and their practices.
The end result is that many rural communities don’t reap the benefits of this democratically designed system.
“Rural electric cooperatives were built to fight poverty and revitalize communities,” said Energy Democracy National Tour organizer Crystal Huang. “It’s a great intention, but when good policy gets approved and implemented without community engagement, it might even worsen the problem.”
Since their inception, rural electric cooperatives have been held up as a solution to inequitable electricity access. In 1935, President Franklin Roosevelt launched the Rural Electrification Administration to bring electricity to rural homes and farms across the U.S.; the first one started in Mississippi. There are now more than 900 electric cooperatives in 47 states that provide power to more than 40 million people, many of them in the South. About 98 percent of counties with persistent poverty are serviced by electric co-ops, and in Mississippi — a state with an average income nearly a third lower than the rest of the country — co-ops serve about 45 percent of households.
Three years ago, One Voice Executive Director Nsombi Lambright started hearing about Mississippi co-op customers paying monthly power bills that were as high as $500 or $1,000. Others complained they never got their refund checks, which turned out to be a longstanding pattern: in 2014, state regulators found that seven of Mississippi’s 25 power associations were not refunding members; Twin County Electric Power Association, which was withholding $33 million in capital credit funds that it hadn’t refunded, was at the top of the list.
Tim Perkins, general manager of Twin County, declined to answer questions about specific refunds but said that the board of directors decides how credits are refunded to members, and that Twin County gives back to the community by donating to area schools and sponsors two $1,000 scholarships for a statewide youth leadership program.
“Co-ops have two key missions,” said Stephen Bell, director of media relations at the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, “providing reliable, affordable electricity and empowering the communities they serve.” The role of co-op members, Bell added, is to engage board members, serve on advisory committees, and help the cooperative figure out what the community’s energy needs are.
But many members of Twin County Electric Power Association have said there’s little to no communication or transparency about energy costs or community engagement after they sign up for service. Tanner said he came back from his One Voice training more educated and connected with other members around the state, and with a new outlook on the importance of understanding power companies.
“They didn’t know they had a voice, didn’t understand what being a member-owner meant,” Lambright said.
In 2016, One Voice started a free annual program, the Electric Cooperative Leadership Institute, that teaches a class of 20 to 25 members from around the state how to decipher bylaws and tax forms so they can understand how cooperatives spend money, and shows them ways to impact co-op decisions. Afterwards, some attendees host monthly meetings in their own communities to share successes and challenges. The next round of leadership training begins in spring 2019. There have been small successes since it began: one group used rebate money to revamp a playground in a community; another got funding for a college radio station.
Lorraine Warfield, who lives in Hollandale, Mississippi, where Twin County Electric Power Association is based, participated in the program two years ago. “Knowing that I have a share in this company, that got me wanting to be more involved,” she said.
Inspired by Tanner and other neighbors, she helped campaign for Sarah Ann Hood, a local cooperative member who ran for the Twin County board in September. Warfield said she mailed at least 200 votes for Hood in during the election — a feat in a place where many longtime residents said they’ve never voted for an electric cooperative board race. According to the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, nearly three-quarters of cooperatives in the U.S. have less than a 10 percent voter turnout for board elections.
But Hood lost the election by 434 votes, so the three incumbent board members were re-elected. Twin County representatives did not respond to questions about the voting process or the board. Perkins said he “hasn’t seen any more interest than in past years” of members involvement, although Warfield and other members claim the voting process was done behind closed doors and the board never answered their questions about it.
Research shows Southeastern states spend the most money on electricity, despite their proximity to cheap power sources. In West Virginia, utility customers say their monthly power bills are hundreds of dollars; cooperative members in Mississippi spend more than 42 percent of their income on electricity alone, according to One Voice.
To address this, there’s a movement brewing at the local and national levels to energize cooperative members. In Tennessee, where a third of people are serviced by cooperatives, Appalachian Voices, a nonprofit advocacy group, has been mobilizing people to engage with providers on renewable energy, efficiency, and rates. A Georgia nonprofit created transparency guidelines after finding out some rural cooperatives weren’t adhering to rules.
Nationally, this year’s Energy Democracy National Tour, put on by a group of advocacy organizations, is highlighting work by low-income communities of color around the U.S. to develop and gain control of local renewable energy sources. Electric cooperatives, much like investor-owned utilities, are still largely reliant on coal and influenced by the fossil fuel industry.
But giving members control could change that. Low-income communities and communities of color are disproportionately impacted by pollution from power plants and coal ash facilities. They’re also already feeling the effects of climate change; a 2017 study shows the Southern U.S., which already has high poverty rates, will suffer economically more than other areas of the country.
Advocates say restoring the voting process in these co-ops and ensuring vulnerable populations are represented equally can allow them to make decisions about renewable energy and public health concerns. “What energy democracy is trying to address is allow public ownership,” Huang said. “The current institution is going at an accelerating speed toward privatization, and we want to turn to people-centered institutions.”
Before they can push for clean energy, though, Twin County Electric Power Association members want to keep educating marginalized people in the state about cooperatives and ensure more transparency from the top down. Tanner said he might even consider running for the board himself next year. In the meantime, he and Warfield plan to focus on making the voting process more accessible, with the goal of getting the cooperative to develop more jobs and invest in playgrounds and community centers, youth programs, and clean energy sources.
“I would love for them to step up and do what they promised people,” Warfield said. “I want to talk to, and empower, people to step up to receive what [cooperatives] promised them. I want to open doors for the next generation behind us to come along and finish off what we started.”
This story was published in partnership with Spotlight on Poverty and Opportunity, a nonprofit, nonpartisan site that covers poverty news and policy. It was originally published in Southerly, an independent media organization that covers ecology, justice, and culture in the American South.