People Power Forces NH Electric Co-op’s Attention

The past couple of months have bode well for the power of grassroots movements in small town New Hampshire. Two ad hoc grassroots groups in Sandwich, N.H. have made important inroads in alerting their member-owned New Hampshire Electric Co-op (NHEC) to be more sensitive to the town’s broadband and renewable energy needs. The NHEC delivers electricity to 87 percent of the town’s residents.

You can learn about the dire need for Sandwich residents to have more effective broadband during this pandemic quarantine by reading articles and opinion pieces here, here and here.  NHEC has the pole space where fiber could be strung to help the residents get reliable high speed internet. However, NHEC’s management and majority of its board of directors have shown little interest in helping.

So  the townspeople took action. All its NHEC users are members/owners of the cooperative. They flexed their collective muscle on two fronts. One they got more than 800 signatures on a petition to force a vote to change the NHEC charter to make it more broadband friendly. Two, they endorsed a field of board of director candidates who supported broadband. Of the five candidates running three would be elected. Via social media and the stories mentioned above, it started a campaign to get broadband sympathetic users/members/owners to exercise their right to vote for the broadband charter change and for its slate of candidates.

At the same time the Sandwich Climate Action Coalition (SCAC) saw the NHEC as a prime player in helping the town reach its goal of 100 percent renewable energy electricity by 2030. It partnered with Pemi Climate Emergency Coalition in nearby Plymouth to produce a climate related questionnaire for the five board candidates to answer.  Each took the time to answer all the questions, except for 10-year incumbent board member Harry Viens. He also refused to support the citizens broadband petition. The SCAC levered its 80 plus members to provide support and outreach for incumbent candidate Leo Dwyer, who is also a Sandwich select board member and a renewable energy advocate. He along with Madeline McElhaney and William Darcy were elected. Incumbent Viens was voted out of office.

Below is a press release from the ad hoc broadband group outlining the results of the efforts:

In New Hampshire’s first referendum on rural broadband, a strong majority of voters in the New Hampshire Electric Cooperative’s annual election told the 80,000-member Coop that it wants “facilitating broadband” added to the utility’s charter.

However, that fell 183 votes short of the two-thirds super-majority needed to change the member-owned Coop’s bylaws. A two-thirds majority, or 67 percent of voting members, was required. The broadband question got 64.4 percent despite declared opposition by the NHEC board.

At the same time, Coop members elected two board members who strongly support a broadband role for the utility, and they turned out an incumbent who opposed the question.

“The broadband vote showed overwhelming support by NHEC members for implementing broadband,” said William Darcy, a Benton selectman who is one of the Coop’s two new board members. The other is Madeline McElhaney, a consumer advocate and real estate agent from Plymouth.

Darcy noted that “few if any of the 100 or so electric cooperatives around the country that have implemented broadband have changed their charters to do so. It’s clearly not needed,” he said. “The NHEC members have spoken. They want their cooperative to deliver broadband.”

Leo Dwyer, a supporter of the broadband ballot question who won reelection to the NHEC board, agreed that the vote was “an extremely strong showing, given that the board urged members to vote against it and warned members the measure might raise their electricity rates. I think the Coop can do a lot to facilitate broadband in ways that would not raise rates.”

The high-visibility NHEC election – believed to be the first time Coop members have mounted a grass-roots effort to change policy – increased member turnout for the election, which was conducted by mail and online. Last year fewer than 6,000 members voted, versus 7,880 this time, a 33 percent increase that almost certainly reflects interest in the broadband issue. (Note: Not all those casting ballots voted on the broadband question.)

Insiders and observers say the closeness of the vote – less than 3 percentage point short of achieving a bylaws change – and an increased voice for broadband on the Coop board are likely to change the utility’s inclination to play an active role.

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