Report: Rural electricity cooperatives lack women, minorities in elected positions





By Kristi Eaton, The Daily Yonder

A new report from ACORN International shows that while rural America is becoming more diverse, rural power co-ops are not reflecting that diversity.

The Rural Power Project – ACORN International and Labor Neighbor Research and Training Center – surveyed the elected leadership of 888 rural electricity cooperatives (RECs) across the country and found that they were almost exclusively white and exclusively male.

Overall, women made up just 12.6% of REC board members. Blacks now make up 24% of America’s rural population, but the new report found that 96% of REC board seats are held by whites.

RECs provide electricity to 56% of America’s landmass, approximately 42 million Americans, with a promise of democratic member control over utilities.

“The surprising thing is how extreme both things are,” said David Thompson, research director at ACORN International, in an interview with the Daily Yonder. “And we really see that as an act of exclusion.”

He said women and people of color are “grossly disenfranchised” by the very institutions that are supposed to be owned and operated by their members, which are all those using the electricity in their service areas.

“If you don’t have a board that represents the people being served and you form these coops, it means people are being denied opportunity at every turn,” Thompson added.

According to the report, there is no state in America where REC bodies reflect the even split of the adult population. At six men and five women, New Hampshire’s only co-op board comes closest to New Hampshire. Vermont is next, but far behind, with 28.6% women – six of the 21 board members of its two RECs. Outside of New England, where electric co-ops are rare, Alaska has the best female representation. That rate is only 23.2%, with 29 women among the 125 elected CEOs. Meanwhile, the West Virginia REC has no women on its board.

A lack of diversity among women and minorities, Thompson said, has consequences.

“Basically, we think people don’t really have a say in what their electricity bills are. It’s a big issue that’s becoming increasingly important with inflation and rising energy costs,” he said.

Fast facts: North Carolina’s electrical co-ops

There are 26 locally owned and operated electrical cooperatives in North Carolina.

Ninety-three of North Carolina’s 100 counties are served by an electricity cooperative.

Electricity cooperatives are non-profit organizations. The members elect the directors.

North Carolina’s Electricity Cooperatives serve 1 million homes and businesses.

-Information from North Carolina’s Electric Cooperatives and compiled by Carolina Public Press

He added that there are studies showing over-reliance on coal, which the researchers say has to do with who is the board member making the decisions. “It has to be that they benefit to a greater extent than their membership would,” he said.

He also said the RECs could provide low-interest loans for economic development through a financing program they were included in by the government.

“Often these cooperatives are among the largest economic players in a community,” he said. “And when you have a board that’s just mostly old white men who serve an area that’s not, that means all those resources are just going to the people who pick them, and it’s not going to help, to develop the community as a whole.”

Thompson said there are no women’s and minority diversity requirements, but some states have created more transparency about their meeting notices and procedures.

The group believes that a coordinated effort to reform RECs must take place. “It’s great that local efforts are emerging, but it really needs to be done on a larger scale,” Thompson added.

This article first appeared on The Daily Yonder and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

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