Strategic steps forward

Coop CurrentsCoop News

Louis Porter begins GM journey with WEC-wide strategic planning, assessing risk before broadband project goes before membership and regulators, storm preparedness, call for Board candidates, and the season of giving
President’s and General Manager’s Message
Strategic start

Steve: The General Manager sets the process for operating the utility, brings new skills and a new outlook in carrying out the WEC mission as determined and regularly reaffirmed by the Board of Directors. We’re looking forward to Louis bringing his experience to our Co-op.  At the same time, we thank Patty Richards for her contributions over the previous eight years. 

Louis started at WEC on November 1. In early October, WEC held a future-oriented strategic training exercise, and it was great that Louis was able to fully participate in that. It’s fortunate to have a new General Manager starting at the same time we are undertaking strategic planning for the next decade. The Board is optimistic to be working together with Louis and WEC employees to update our long-term plan.

Louis: It was tremendously helpful and fun for me to be part of that conversation and learn about the Co-op, both the community and the organization itself, and to meet a lot of the people who work in the Co-op and alongside us, like those who joined us from the Cooperative Finance Corporation (CFC). I can’t think of a better way to get on the learning curve than to get some perspective this way. I found it extremely helpful, and the timing was great. It was really my introduction and my first engagement with the people here. I’m grateful for that.

Steve: This strategic process was an opportunity for everyone at the Co-op to let their hair down a bit and hear everybody’s individual perspectives. And it was great to have professionals from the outside give perspective on what might be called standard operating practices at cooperatives around the country, so we can benefit from their experience and adapt it to our own WEC culture.

Louis: One of the things that struck me most about that process is sharing that this is a lived ideal: that part of the mission of a cooperative is to share knowledge and information and approaches with other co-ops. That was very apparent from the CFC folks: that they take very seriously, as WEC does, helping other co-ops in similar circumstances facing similar questions, even though the individual culture and the people within their co-ops are very different.

It was interesting and encouraging to me that that sharing of knowledge is available. It makes the daunting task of learning what I need to learn a little less daunting and more approachable.

Steve: Louis, you picked up on general feelings of where we find consensus about what needs to be done in the future, and what we generally feel like we need to do as a cooperative. All those things were discussed in more than just a superficial way. Over the next several months we look forward to distilling some of these ideas, continuing to discuss them, and putting the best and most achievable ideas into action plans.

Louis: There seemed to be a lot of consensus on at least the broad categories of objectives and strategic goals of the Co-op, both from the staff and also from the management and Board. I guess I’m not surprised, but I was glad to see a lot of commonality there.

Steve: That’s why these activities are so important. We may come to it from different directions, but we all recognize the same challenges and issues that lie before us. To talk about it together over a period of several days, reaffirming who we are and what our values are, is important to do as we get caught up in the day to day challenges of running our member-owned Co-op.

In my first week here, the understanding among the staff of what it means to be a co-op, and the objectives and philosophy of the Co-op, are apparent in every aspect of the work and every conversation I’ve had. It’s something the staff and Patty have internalized, and that’s great to see.

Louis Porter
Broadband loan risks/benefits

Steve: We have weekly meetings of the WEC broadband team. I expect Louis will come to lead the group’s efforts on this project as he gets up to speed on the complexities of broadband. The project itself is in an interesting spot. The last major hurdle, in my opinion, is that WEC has to have a reasonable level of financial security in going out for a 36.5 million dollar loan, which is a rather large amount for WEC. Most of the payments of the loan will be covered by lease payments from our partnering Communication Union Districts (CUDs) who will be generating revenue from broadband service using WEC’s fiber. WEC is now seeking financial surety so that in the event that things don’t go according to plan, our member ratepayers won’t face undue risk. WEC’s team is pursuing this with our regulators, CUD partners, and discussions with legislators. The member vote to support broadband expansion via a USDA loan will follow when we can present the benefits and risks to our members with more clarity.

Photograph of Stephen Knowlton

WEC is now seeking financial surety so that in the event that things don’t go according to plan, our member ratepayers won’t face undue risk. The member vote to support WEC’s participation in broadband expansion will follow when we can present it to our members with clarity.

Steve Knowlton

Louis: There are a huge number of entities that all need to be on board and have their concerns and their interests represented in this project. That includes first and foremost the WEC membership, but there are also regulatory entities, lenders, government agencies, CUD partners; there are a lot of entities that need to have knowledge and understanding and be supportive of the project. Each of these groups has their own interests to protect and represent in the project. It’s like multiple parallel lanes of traffic figuring out the answers to these questions. To be candid, having a new GM at the same time adds a layer of complexity to each of those lanes. 

We’re moving forward and making good progress: what I’ve seen is every time a challenge gets raised, the people who need to get together do so, figure out an answer, and we move forward. We’ll have a member vote when we have reasonably complete information and when we know that info won’t change in a substantial way. We need to figure out the right timing for that.

Steve: It’s one of the more complex negotiations and educational experiences I’ve been involved in as a Board member. As we get closer and closer to going before our regulators, we’re trying to negotiate the issue of financial risk and financial surety to make sure our members are not facing — how would you put it, Louis?

Louis: I’d say not facing unnecessary or unreasonable risks. No project can ever have no risk; everything we do has some amount of risk to it. What we’re working to do is make sure the risks are appropriate to the portion of the membership and to the entities that benefit from the upside of that risk. We’re trying to allocate the risk to the beneficiaries, to those receiving internet coverage, and limiting the risk to the electrical ratepayers to an extent that is appropriate to the benefits for those ratepayers. It’s a complicated thing to do because there’s a very strong ratepayer case for the expansion of fiber and internet coverage within WEC territory as well as the communications goal.

Steve: Like any good stewards of the Co-op, we need to be careful and thoughtful about what we’re doing on the member-owners’ behalf.

Be prepared for storms

Steve: It’s the season for outages. Storms seem to be more damaging to utility infrastructure, so please, get yourself prepared for winter. Make sure you have backup sources for heat, light, food preparation. Being prepared for outages really reduces the stress of being in an outage.

Louis: WEC and its members have obviously done a lot, and continue to do a lot, with climate change mitigation, as a 100 percent renewably powered utility. But we also need to prepare for those effects that are here and are going to continue even as we work to prevent them as much as we can. That means both staff at the Co-op preparing, and also members in our service area recognizing that storms are going to be more severe and preparing for that in the ways Steve mentioned.

Steve: Climate change is one of the greatest challenges the next generations will deal with, and that requires adapting to it locally as well as addressing mitigation strategies as part of global action. More generally, I’d like to reiterate WEC’s longstanding position that anybody should try to weatherize their house better if they can to improve one’s quality of life with reduced need of energy for heating or cooling.

Run for the Board of Directors

Steve: There are nine of us on WEC’s Board of Directors, and we are each elected to serve a three-year term. So there are three seats up for election every year. The next election will be held in May 2022, and candidates must complete their statements of candidacy in February.

I want to strongly encourage fellow WEC members to consider running for the Board for a couple of terms or so.  It is an excellent opportunity to learn how your Co-op operates within the energy and regulatory landscape of Vermont, and as one gets a little experience, an effective Board member learns how to make the choices, largely formulated by WEC staff, that guide WEC’s future for the benefit of its members. The incoming Board member needs no experience other than being a member of WEC.  While candidates with backgrounds in areas such as accounting, business, legislation, regulation, social and public organizations, and the like could of course find their experience to be useful on the Board, the only “requirement” I’ve found to be universal is the willingness to act in good faith and with financial prudence on behalf of all fellow WEC members according to cooperative principles.

Louis: This is really Steve’s purview, but I would add this: people don’t always take into account that Board membership does not require a specialized knowledge of any kind. The Co-op staff and incumbent Board members can provide what you need in those terms. 

Second, Board service is an extraordinary way to learn about an organization and an area of the world that is of great interest and of great value to the community. I recognize the competing demands and interests people have, but for members who are thinking about it and just need a nudge to file the paperwork: in my experience, people are surprised by the rewards of this kind of service, how much they enjoy it and how much they learn, and they are happy they did it.

Steve: I think that frames it very well. We are a Board that consists of members. I’m an average member who felt this is a good way to spend some of my time serving my community. And based on what we just discussed, utilities are operating in a time of change: not only technical changes, but also large scale social changes in the world’s energy landscape. It’s a fascinating time to be part of maintaining WEC’s continuing role as a 100 percent renewable energy cooperative in our society, providing power with minimal environmental impact.

WEC is not an investor-owned utility. We act on behalf of our members; we have no other shareholders. We have a distinct mission. To me, that’s what makes it worthwhile to spend my time doing this. When I step down, I expect other people will step up. That’s what participation in public institutions calls for if they’re worth maintaining.

Season of helping

Steve: With the approach of winter, I’m glad I have a warm house. Other people don’t. How can I help change that? Capstone has a weatherization program, so I donate to it when I can. 

WEC also participates in a program called Round Up, where you just let the Co-op know to round up your bill to the next dollar. That little amount of money goes directly into the state’s WARMTH program.

Members can also opt to have their annual capital credit refund go directly to the Community Fund. Those are straightforward ways WEC members can easily and affordably help our community members, during the winter months and year long.

Louis: Unlike a for-profit utility that hands profits to shareholders, the Co-op gives excess revenue back to its members as a bill credit. For those members who can afford to donate them, WEC’s Community Fund pools those credit donations to support nonprofits in our community. It’s one of the most appealing things about the organization as far as I’m concerned, that if members so choose, they’re part of a united effort to improve the conditions and lives of people in our communities.That’s very much in keeping with the spirit of the Co-op. The reason WEC was founded was to pool shared resources for shared benefit.