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City Desk

Biggest Hurdle for MT Electric Co-Ops? Member Engagement


Big Sky Connection

Click on the image for the audio.

Eric Tegethoff


November 7, 2019

LIVINGSTON, Montana - Nearly half of Montanans are members and owners of an electric cooperative, putting power into their hands in more ways than one.


But many co-ops have come under scrutiny for hindering member engagement.


Lara Birkes is a sustainability policy consultant in Livingston who says her unsuccessful run to be on the board of her local co-op, Park Electric, illustrates how boards could be more representative.


She says many co-ops only allow voting for members who attend the annual meetings, which can be hard in a big county such as hers.


"If they're traveling, if they have work or family commitments, they're unable to attend and vote," she points out. "So that means that the board representation is reflected on the people that can attend the annual meeting at the Park County Fairgrounds on a Friday afternoon at the end of October. And that's just not a representative way to elect a board."


Birkes says the best solution is to allow voting by mail.


A 2016 survey by the Institute for Local Self-Reliance found that, nationwide, more than 70% of electric co-ops have voter turnout of less than 10%.


A report card by the Northern Plains Resource Council finds less than half of Montana co-ops allow voting by mail.


Another reason Birkes ran for a board seat was to move Park Electric toward clean energy sources.


The Northern Plains survey of co-ops also shows a renewable energy plan is even more rare than a vote-by-mail option, although some do offer solar and net metering opportunities.


Birkes maintains Montanans want to move in this direction and co-ops' democratic principles are the right vehicle for change going forward.


"I think it's a fantastic model," she states. "When it works well, it's really, really good - and that's why I'm optimistic about it because the thing is, its strength relies on its member engagement."


Montana has 25 distribution co-ops in the state's 56 counties, providing power to more than 400,000 Montanans.



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