Power 2 the People

On Saturday afternoon I went down to Roberts, MT to attend the annual meeting of Beartooth Electric Cooperative with my aunt and uncle, who live south of Roberts in Beartooth’s service territory.

Hundreds of members of Beartooth Electric Cooperative at the 2010 annual meeting at Roberts (MT) High School in Carbon County.

The annual meeting was packed with hundreds of the 5000 or so co-op customers, many of whom are riled about Beartooth’s electrical rates (the highest in the state) and the cost of the withdrawn Highwood coal plant proposal. The annual meeting is a marathon that starts at 11 a.m., includes lunch, and was still going strong after 4 p.m. when I left. The photo was taken after 3 p.m., when much of the crowd had already dispersed.

Perhaps the biggest item on the agenda was voting for new board members. Only the person whose name is on the bill can vote, so the crowd represented many more users of co-op electricity than actual voters. The District 2 board member, Ronnie Wright, did not stand for re-election, citing work and family obligations and the growing amount of time needed to handle co-op business as the energy sector gets less predictable. Roxie Melton of Joliet and Frankie Ropp stood for the empty seat.  Melton defeated Ropp, 154 to 101.

Michael Plymale of District 5 (a “good old boy,” says my uncle, who’s a good old boy if there ever was one) had served on the board for 18 years and stood for re-election against challenger Arleen Boyd of Fishtail. Boyd, who defeated Plymale by a vote of 153 to 98, has been very visible in recent months because of her unsuccessful attempts to be admitted to meetings of Southern Montana Electric, the generation and tranmission co-op that provides power to Beartooth.  The Billings Gazette recently sued Southern to get access to the meetings, and won. The City of Great Falls, another Southern customer, used open records laws earlier this year to get access to Southern documents about the costly Highwood proposal, which was recently approved under a new configuration as a natural gas facility. Southern and Great Falls continue to spar over disclosure issues and the new plant.

I think it’s safe to say that Melton and Boyd represent those who want new leadership and change at Beartooth, and question decisions made in the last few years. The anticipated financing for Highwood evaporated when the Rural Utilities Service stopped providing loans for new coal plants after Earthjustice sued the agency in 2007, leaving participating utilities with a huge development expense to recover. But Beartooth has other tricky issues to deal with. Its load profile is over 80% residential, with few big industrial and commercial customers to even out the rate structure. And the residents are over 30% seasonal, meaning they leave vacation homes unoccupied much of the year and consume far less electricity than the average residential customer, while requiring the same costly basic services as all customers.

Best wishes to Melton and Boyd, and the other Beartooth board members. Running a rural electric cooperative these days takes vision, nerve, and a lot of hard work.

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