Clockwise from top left: Sally Newkirk, Suzanne Obenshain, Sanford Reaves Jr., Seth Heald. Credit: Courtesy photos

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Clean energy advocates are challenging incumbents in two utility co-op board elections this summer.

Rockingham County resident Sally Newkirk lauds her utility for adding a pair of small solar demonstration projects atop and adjacent to its new $25 million headquarters. She also praises its leaders for hiring an energy program coordinator to streamline once-balky net metering connections.

But it isn’t enough. To prod Shenandoah Valley Electric Cooperative to be more aggressive with rooftop solar and energy efficiency, the political novice is challenging incumbent vice chair Suzanne Obenshain for a seat on the co-op’s board of directors.

“I’ve got climate issues in my blood,” said Newkirk, a real estate agent who serves on the Climate Action Alliance of the Valley steering committee. “And I understand if you don’t get involved politically, it’s more or less a hobby.”

The 10-member board has two openings, but only one contested race. Directors serve four-year staggered terms.

Paper or online ballots must be turned in by Aug. 10, so results can be announced at Shenandoah’s virtual annual business meeting on Aug. 13.

Farther east, solar and energy efficiency advocate Seth Heald is seeking to unseat a Rappahannock Electric Cooperative board member who opposed a solar farm in Culpeper County two years ago as an “untried technology.” Further, Sanford Reaves Jr. said the array “might cause cows to give green milk,” according to the Fredricksburg Free Lance-Star.  

The nine-member Rappahannock co-op board has three open seats, but only the one from Culpeper County-Orange County is a contested race. Directors serve three-year, staggered terms.

Heald co-founded Repower REC, a grassroots initiative to address the co-op’s clean energy mix as well as governance and transparency issues. The retired U.S. Justice Department attorney spent part of his 35-year career handling electric utility litigation.

“The pressure they are feeling from our campaign to be a little more ambitious about saving members money is beginning to have an effect,” said Heald, who has a master’s degree in energy policy. “It’s time to stop the slow walk and move forward with a sense of urgency.”

Heald and Newkirk both have net-metering accounts with their respective co-ops. Their candidacies also are backed by Solar United Neighbors, a national nonprofit that views rooftop arrays as the cornerstone of creating an equitable, democratic energy system in communities.

Several years ago, a small group affiliated with the nonprofit’s Virginia chapter agitated Shenandoah Valley leaders enough that the co-op has embraced solar as a strategic objective.

“We were letting them know that they are there to serve their members, not the other way around,” said Solar United Neighbors’ Virginia program manager Aaron Sutch. “To their credit it seems like they have been more accepting of solar.”

This is the second time Sutch’s group has backed reform candidates on a Rappahannock ballot. Last August, three other members of Repower REC lost to incumbents in three separate races.

But Heald says those losses are just one indicator that energy policy at the co-op isn’t all that needs revising. Members can earn cash prizes for meeting early voting deadlines. Ballots are written in a convoluted manner that allows voters to choose a candidate or select a proxy designation. Confusingly, voting directly is presented as an “optional” step.

“I care about clean energy and consumer issues,” Heald said about righting what he sees as wrongs. “I have helped to expose serious issues and I feel motivated to try to improve the situation.”

State laws move co-ops on solar, efficiency

Historically — with some notable exceptions — co-ops nationwide have been tardy in warming up to renewable energy. That mindset is evolving as prices for clean energy drop, leaders become savvier and members push for change. In Virginia, solar advocates point to Central Virginia and BARC (Bath, Allegheny, Rockbridge Counties) co-ops as two solar and sustainability trailblazers.

Legislation is also a carrot. Last year, the Virginia General Assembly passed a law lifting a net metering cap for co-ops. The measure raised the cumulative installed capacity of net metering systems from 1% of the total annual peak load to 7%. Net metering allows co-op members to save on their electric bills by selling excess solar energy they generate back to the utility.

That same law also allows residential customers within co-op territory to install enough solar to meet 125% of their energy needs. The previous limit was 100%.

“We were up against that 1% cap,” said Preston Knight, spokesperson for Shenandoah Valley. “This legislation opens the door for us to do a lot more down the road.”

His co-op serves 79,000-plus members in the city of Winchester and the counties of Augusta, Clarke, Frederick, Highland, Page, Rockingham, Shenandoah and Warren. Of those, 638 have net metering contracts.

More than 1,000 of Rappahannock’s 140,000 members are net-meterers. The co-op, the state’s largest when measured geographically, stretches across 22 counties from the Blue Ridge Mountains to the Tidewater region.

Matt Faulconer, manager of external affairs, said lifting the cap meant the co-op “wouldn’t have to say no to customers requesting solar.”

He and Knight are pleased that a separate piece of legislation, which took effect July 1, allows co-op boards to approve programs to finance energy efficiency improvements. 

“SB 754 removes regulatory compliance costs,” Faulconer said about saving tens of thousands of dollars. “Usually, because we’re regulated, everything we do, we have to go to the State Corporation Commission and say, ‘Mother, may I?’”

Heald is encouraged by the promise of the law, but wonders what Rappahannock will deliver because he said he has witnessed only baby steps in the past.

“There’s a real need for strong board leadership to see that energy efficiency is done at scale,” he said. “Other co-ops have done this and Rappahannock is behind.”

Heald noted that early this month Rappahannock hired Peter Muhoro to fill a newly created position as vice president of strategy and technology.

“It’s an encouraging sign that they are starting to move off the dime,” he said. “But that’s just one guy.” 

Faulconer said Rappahannock is committed to careful action.

“We aren’t just talking about this stuff,” he said. “We’re trying to get into the nitty-gritty.”

Meeting peaks with solar? 

Both Heald and Newkirk maintain that the long-term power contracts their respective distribution co-ops have signed with Old Dominion Electric Cooperative, a generator and transmitter, have stymied progress on renewables in favor of fossil fuels.

About 10% of Old Dominion’s fuel mix is wind and solar. That excludes its market purchases from PJM, the regional transmission organization, said spokesperson Shena Crittendon.

The spokespeople for Rappahannock and Shenandoah Valley say one drawback of solar is that the sun isn’t bright enough on the early winter mornings and late summer afternoons when customers traditionally use the most electricity.

Later this year, Rappahannock will be bringing a utility-scale battery storage project online to help close that peak-load gap.

“We’re not discouraging solar,” Faulconer said, adding that there’s an ample market for solar providers and credits. “Still, that doesn’t change how much power is required at certain hours of the day.

“If we get to the point that distributed storage can even it out, that might pay for itself and be a worthwhile utility program for us to invest in.”

Sutch said that while it’s true that solar production doesn’t always align with a utility’s peak load needs, adding battery storage can balance that out.

“People want solar,” he said. “Co-ops are always just looking at lost revenue, so solar is a liability instead of an asset. The trick for co-ops is seeing its tremendous value as clean local energy that reduces wear and tear on the grid.”

Faulconer said it isn’t fair to expect Virginia utilities to match programs elsewhere because the state doesn’t have the same payback on solar. 

“You have to really look at what goes on here and meet the environment, the climate and the demand,” he said. “You can’t necessarily look to other states.”

Do fixed rates penalize poor, solar users?

An article about the upcoming election in the co-op magazine prompted Newkirk to run because “people don’t understand that your little electric cooperative makes energy decisions all the time.”

She was disturbed when Shenandoah Valley raised its monthly fixed rate charge from $13.76 to $25 in January. She knows it pays for vital grid infrastructure, but said it penalizes poorer customers and net-meterers.

“We don’t want one class of customers subsidizing another class,” said Knight, the co-op spokesperson. “Solar members are still using our infrastructure, which has a cost associated with it. More solar might mean less power to purchase, but it doesn’t create less stress on the system.” 

Newkirk argues that fixed charges harm customers’ ability to control their electric bills by installing solar or maximizing energy efficiency. Whether a household uses 100 kWh or 1,000 kWh, the fixed charge remains consistent.

Sutch’s perspective is more sweeping: “The premise that net metering puts an undue burden on non-solar households is an unsubstantiated talking point. Different rate classes are always subsidized by others. The grid is not built on the concept of fairness, built on socialization of costs.”

Newkirk wants to elevate weatherization programs and other money-saving initiatives to relieve the energy burden of the estimated 8,000 co-op customers she said struggle to pay their electric bills.

“As a Realtor, I specialize in selling energy efficient homes, so I get the concept,” she said. “I don’t want to leave out a certain class of people.”

Obenshain, who owns and operates a real estate and property management company, approved the fixed charge increase during her first term. She is married to Republican state Sen. Mark Obenshain. 

She participates in the co-op’s Beat the Peak program and said she intends “to continue exploring energy efficiency programs.” 

Shenandoah Valley has a suite of co-op programs geared to help low-income members, she said. For instance, the co-op has suspended all nonpayment-related service terminations and penalties for late payments during the coronavirus pandemic. 

Expanding distributed energy options is a board priority, she said, adding that directors will be exploring solar, battery storage and electric vehicle options at its annual planning meeting in August.

In a June article in a local newspaper, Obenshain had indicated that transitioning to clean energy too quickly could increase power costs for the vulnerable. She said that utility rates were skyrocketing in some areas “in part because of trendy mandates that are forcing utilities to generate more and more power through expensive green energy initiatives.”

Reaves: I’ve ‘matured’ in my position

Reaves is running for a second term on the Rappahannock board. In an interview, he chuckled about the “green milk” comment he made in January 2018 at a Culpeper County Planning Commission meeting. Reaves, who owns and operates a construction and janitorial services company, chairs that body.

“When I spoke that way, I was addressing the audience I had there,” he said, noting that dairy farmers had expressed concerns about potential impacts of the solar farm on their herds. “I meant to caution people and say, let’s make sure we know as much as we can about it.

“I wasn’t the only one who was not well educated in reference to solar. We were getting our first taste.”

Since then, he said, he has “matured in my position” by learning details. 

It frustrates him when Repower advocates criticize the co-op for not advancing renewables quickly enough.

“I am completely for solar and renewables, but we have a responsibility to spend someone’s money carefully,” he said. “Our main mission and main goal and fiduciary duty is to provide sustainable and affordable energy for members.” 

He said solar should be accessible at an affordable price and that “I refuse to subsidize all of those who can afford to invest.”

Heald said it is “outrageous and irresponsible” that a board member of a large co-op made the green milk comment at a public meeting.

“The culture of electric cooperatives is that they don’t seek out people who know enough to nudge the co-op in one way or another,” he said. “A little gentle nudging is good and I’m trying to do it respectfully, collegially and collaboratively.”

Heald is pleased that an intervention by the Sierra Club a few years back forced the Rappahannock to revisit a request to double its fixed rate charge from $10 to $20 a month. Instead, the co-op raised it to $14.

It annoys him that Rappahannock hasn’t advanced solar since adding a 10-kilowatt ground-mounted array near its Spotsylvania County office building six years ago.

“That’s the kind of greenwashing my job is to be a guard against,” he said about what is labeled as an education project. As a board member, “I would make sure they are backing up what they are saying with real action.”

Faulconer, the co-op spokesperson, said Rappahannock is re-examining its solar stance because critics are asking hard questions.

“Are we responding as quickly as people want? Maybe not, but we are responding.”

Rappahannock election results will be announced Aug. 20, the day after the co-op’s virtual annual meeting.

Whether or not Heald defeats Reaves, he plans to persist with simplifying the ballot, reviewing director salaries and improving transparency by allowing members to observe board meetings and access meeting minutes.

“It’s not really democratic when so many members are in the dark,” Heald said, adding that they should be treated as the business owners they are. “We need to get back to the co-op roots of genuine participation.”

Reformers aren’t operating a malicious campaign against co-ops, said Sutch, of Solar United Neighbors. They just want to be informed.

“At its best, a co-op is a very democratic, representative system that should do what members demand. In our work with utilities, we’re like a parent saying to one of their kids, ‘I see your potential. I know you can do so much better.’”

Elizabeth McGowan

Elizabeth is a longtime energy and environment reporter who has worked for InsideClimate News, Energy Intelligence and Crain Communications. Her groundbreaking dispatches for InsideClimate News from Kalamazoo, Michigan, “The Dilbit Disaster: Inside the Biggest Oil Spill You Never Heard Of” won a Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting in 2013. Elizabeth covers the state of Virginia. Her book, "Outpedaling 'The Big C': My Healing Cycle Across America" will be published by Bancroft Press in September 2020.