Typically, at WEC’s Annual Meetings, there is little drawn-out suspense regarding the results of the Board of Directors election. That’s true even in years when the Annual Meeting is held in-person, when the ballot box remains open during a community dinner. The quorum is established and votes are counted quickly, and results are announced shortly after the Board President opens the meeting.
But at the 83rd Annual Meeting on May 5, an unusually high number of candidates and a bylaw amendment on the ballot kept the Ballot Committee busy tallying votes on hundreds of mailed-in ballots for well over an hour. Ultimately, incumbent Steven Farnham of Plainfield was re-elected, and new Directors Betsy Allen of Plainfield and Susan Alexander of Cabot were voted to the Board. The bylaw amendment, which would allow for online voting, passed by a wide margin.
A few dozen members and guests attended the meeting virtually, with several Directors and WEC staff gathered, masked, in the Co-op’s conference room in East Montpelier. President Stephen Knowlton started the meeting expressing his wish that this 83rd Annual Meeting is the last one to be held virtually.
From there, the theme of the meeting was one of appreciation for service – for many people, in many ways. WEC welcomed Rebecca Towne, general manager of Vermont Electric Co-op, who spoke about valuing the sister cooperatives’ ongoing mutual support. Knowlton expressed his gratitude to the seven candidates who ran for the Board. “The willingness to spend some time and effort to learn how our Co-op works and how we can serve our fellow members, to have power owned by the people for the people, is something we don’t find every day,” he observed.
Knowlton thanked former GM Patty Richards and Co-op staff who left for other ventures in the past year. And he acknowledged the many years of service of two Board members whose terms concluded that night: Annie Reed of Marshfield, who served as Board Secretary, and Barry Bernstein of Calais, who for many years served as WEC’s President.
In positioning WEC as an environmental steward, Knowlton said, “Annie has been a leader in insisting and promoting that WEC live its values in more than just in being reliable and renewable.”
Reed, with heartfelt simplicity, responded, “This has been one of the best educational experiences of my life. I’ve just loved being on the Board.”
Bernstein, a member for over 50 years, is a Co-op legend. His Board service began in 1999, though he influenced WEC’s environmental policy long before that. Bernstein’s leadership combined political acumen, sense of community, and technical knowledge, said Knowlton, as well as a vision of what electric cooperatives can accomplish for their communities. Bernstein had a role in WEC’s divestment from the shuttered nuclear power plant Vermont Yankee and investment in the landfill gas plant at Coventry, and his signature achievement, said Knowlton, was leading WEC to be the first of now three utilities in the state that are powered by 100% renewable sources. “It’s a clear recognition of where the state needs to go, and Barry brought us there ahead of schedule,” he said.
Bernstein said he’s grateful for the service of all present and past Directors. He spoke about WEC’s role as a yardstick for shifts in policy aims in the Vermont energy community regarding efficiency and rate design as well as other issues. Finally, he said, a cooperative is still a business. “We still have the responsibility to represent 12,000 households, and that’s a balancing act,” between fiscal responsibility and keeping rates as reasonable as possible, he said.
Over the rest of the meeting, members submitted well-wishes and appreciation for Reed and Bernstein through the Zoom chat.
Broadband and grid update
The question of how high-speed internet will reach WEC members is now mostly understood, after many years and countless hours of problem-solving in partnership with Communications Union Districts (CUDs). As federal grants for broadband became available this year, WEC’s access to a low-interest USDA loan was no longer the most cost-effective source of capital. “We’re fortunate WEC members will have broadband built out over the next several years,” provided by CUDs NEK Broadband, CVFiber, or ECFiber, Knowlton said. “We believe that’s a win, even though I don’t think I could have predicted the path at the start of this.”
Adjacent to the broadband project is smart grid development, Knowlton said. WEC is looking at grid upgrades that would incorporate advanced meters, progressive rate structures, and eventually, battery storage. In the future, better integrated net metering and intermittent solar and wind power will be “perhaps a more efficient way of making those sources reliable and dependable as what WEC currently provides you,” he said.
And, he continued, WEC will continue to uphold its duty to provide power safely and reliably. When a utility fails on that front, he pointed out, failure doesn’t just mean outages – it means people get hurt, or they lose some quality of life. “WEC will make the best use of today’s technology today, and as tomorrow’s technology becomes available, we’ll use that to be reliable as well as modern,” he concluded.
Treasurer Don Douglas usually leads with a joke, but this time he led with a million bucks. “We ended the year with net margins of $1,040,204, and that was sufficient to meet all the bank’s requirements,” he reported. Those net margins, a buffer required by lenders and a marker of fiscal responsibility, ensure the Co-op has more than enough money on hand to do business. Eventually, each year’s net margins are returned to the membership in the form of capital credits.
More than $9 million in capital credits has now been returned to the membership, said Douglas. Recently, he added, Barry Bernstein added up all the Co-op’s rate increases since it began returning capital credits, and the total was about $9 million. “You can see where we’re going with this,” he said.
Douglas welcomed Director of Finance & Administration Larry Monserrate, who joined Co-op staff in 2021, and praised the finance team for another clean audit. But he didn’t offer any jokes. “That’ll have to wait until we do this live again,” he said.
General Manager’s report
In his first Annual Meeting report to the membership, General Manager Louis Porter said, “I grew up at the very end of a WEC line, a power line that goes through about a quarter mile of beaver pond.” Members of WEC’s operations team had recently described to Porter a memorable repair to his line: to restore power, WEC lineworkers had to take a boat to the pole and then climb the pole. The Co-op’s lines were originally strung to distribute power by the shortest route possible, he explained, which is “why it remains a difficult and frankly expensive territory to provide electricity across.”
Since joining WEC’s staff, Porter said, he personally experienced WEC’s cooperative principles in action, through the generosity of time and expertise of former GMs Patty Richards and Avram Patt, current and former Board members, and particularly the Co-op’s staff. He arrived at a point in WEC’s history, he said, when many factors and challenges converged: increasing storm severity due to climate change, and the necessity of policy responses to climate change; increasing expectations for electricity as a clean and reliable power source; COVID and climate migration leading to an influx of new members. “Our part will be well-informed and grounded in the history and background and principles of this co-op,” he promised. The three dozen or so employees of WEC could not accomplish so much, he added, without the support of the Co-op community, including the Board, membership, and other partners in public power.
With the ballot committee still counting, Knowlton opened the floor for public comment. Bud Haas of Bradford, a former Director, expressed disappointment at yet another virtual Annual Meeting and at the meeting’s attendance–about a tenth of typical in-person Annual Meeting attendance. He also endorsed the Board’s selection of Porter as GM.
Sandal Cate of East Montpelier said her son is acquiring an electric vehicle and is nudging his parents to purchase one too. “I’m wondering what WEC’s vision is for helping individuals to acquire electric vehicles,” she said, pointing to charger installation, potential demand on the grid if a large number of people buy electric vehicles at the same time, and the personal factors that might make an EV a good or impractical choice. Knowlton responded that WEC offered a $1,200 cash incentive to purchase an EV, and members who take advantage of it receive a Level II EVSE charger through WEC. In his experience as an EV driver, he added, he finds “it’s perfect for a local vehicle.”
Annie Reed added that WEC installed five charging stations throughout its territory: at Middlesex Park & Ride, Harwood Union High School, the Rumney School, at Cabot Creamery, and across from the Co-op’s office in East Montpelier.
Bill Powell, WEC’s Director of Products & Services, invited Sandal and Paul Cate and all members to reach out to him with their questions and factors. The decision also includes each member’s transformer size, wiring, and how much additional electric load their fuse box can handle. Before purchasing an EV, all members should contact WEC for an electric load checkup as well as information about incentives and other support.
Michael Duane wondered if the Co-op has seen an increase in new membership as the climate changes and people fled cities during the pandemic. Porter reported that WEC has seen a number of new connections, and new members’ electric use signals they are working from home.
With an hour elapsed and the ballot count still unfinished, musicians Doug Perkins and Patrick Ross took the screen. Members enjoyed their performance at the 2021 Annual Meeting, and they returned in 2022 with a broad selection of tunes performed on guitar, fiddle, and mandolin.
When the music finished, a quorum had been established. Annie Reed rose up in WEC’s conference room and announced, “I’m standing for my last official act,” as Secretary of the Board, declaring the election and official notice met bylaw requirements. Knowlton announced the passage of the bylaw, reiterated his gratitude to all candidates, and announced the election of Steven Farnham, Susan Alexander, and Betsy Allen.