June 18, 2012. Four directors were elected to the board of Blue Ridge Electric Membership Corporation Thursday evening during the cooperative’s new business format Annual Meeting held at J.E. Broyhill Civic Center in Lenoir.
Elected to serve three-year terms were: Charity Gambill-Gwyn, of Alleghany County, At-Large seat; Kenneth Greene, Ashe district; Jimmy Hemphill, Caldwell district; and Joy Coffey, Watauga district.
More than 7,500 members of Blue Ridge Electric voted in their director elections as a result of new, more convenient ways to participate: by mail and Internet. Director election kits were mailed May 16 to all members. In addition to a proxy for voting and a postage-paid return envelope, the kit included candidate biographies as well as directions and access information for members wanting to vote online.
President Kenneth Greene told the audience that helping members keep costs low was a primary reason for the new annual meeting format. “Giving members the opportunity to vote in director elections is a primary reason for the Annual Meeting,” he said. “In the past only about 800 members voted in director elections, but by giving members more ways to vote than attending the Annual Meeting, we’ve had more members than ever participating in their cooperative. We’re excited about that—we think that’s good for both members and your cooperative!” Greene said.
During the Annual Meeting, Secretary-Treasurer Joy Coffey and Chief Financial Officer Lee Chase told the audience the cooperative is in sound financial condition despite slightly declining member growth and lower kilowatt hour sales primarily due to the impact of warmer winter weather this past year. Chase said the cooperative is well prepared to serve the energy needs of the members now and into the future.
Chief Executive Officer Doug Johnson reaffirmed President’s Greene’s earlier comments that the cooperative is excited about the savings from the new Annual Meeting format that help hold down costs for members. “We understand the importance of finding ways to keep your bill as low as possible without sacrificing service quality,” he said.
Johnson said the cooperative has been successful in cutting and controlling operational costs but that challenges for utilities and their consumers are coming from state and national environmental regulations. He said Blue Ridge Electric’s costs may rise by about two to three percent per year over the next five years as a result of environmental regulation compliance. “These wholesale power cost estimates are based on the fact that Duke Energy, our wholesale power supplier, has invested billions in environmental compliance technology and is shuttering several older coal plants and replacing them with new, and more costly, natural gas and coal plants.”
With that in mind, the cooperative is keeping focused on five strategic ways to benefit members, he said.
First, we’re working to keep members bills as low as possible by managing operational costs through the cooperative’s WorkSmart effort. “To date, our employee team has implemented plans which will result in more than $2.8 million in annual, sustainable savings.
“We’re also looking to our two subsidiaries for savings opportunities,” he added. “This year we expect RidgeLink (a business-to-business subsidiary that leases unused capacity on the cooperative’s fiber optic network) and Blue Ridge Energies (a propane, heating fuels and appliance subsidiary in each district office) to provide about $1.5 million in direct member benefit.
The second strategy is managing the cooperative’s wholesale power agreement with Duke Energy to find ways to help offset part of the coming cost increases. “A good example is the recent proposed merger with Progress Energy which we have strongly supported. Plus, we negotiated a good settlement that protects the cooperative and basically provides that we will benefit from the combined companies,” he explained.
The third strategic initiative is to continue providing exceptionally good service. “Our two big goals are keeping the lights on and giving members excellent service,” he said. “Last year, American Consumer Satisfaction scores placed us among the top five utilities in the nation for customer service — and in the third quarter we were number one in the country! Our electric reliability score for 2012 was also among the best in the country. And our Energies subsidiary scored a 9.7 on a 10-point scale in customer satisfaction,” he said.
The fourth strategy is utilizing technology to be more efficient and provide members easier ways to do business with Blue Ridge. “Our new automated metering system is providing incredible opportunities for members to better manage their energy usage and make it easier to pay. More than 1,800 members have switched from conventional billing to our prepaid FlexPay option. As one member told us last month: ‘I love FlexPay because I’m in control of my usage and I’ve reduced the cost of my monthly bill!”
Regarding technology, the cooperative’s RidgeLink subsidiary is leasing fiber optic capacity to other businesses to improve broadband and mobile phone service in this area. Johnson said, “We installed fiber over the past several years to better operate our electric system and support the automated metering system. But we have excess capacity we’re leasing that benefits you in three ways: better and more affordable broadband provided by the companies we lease to, improved cell phone service, and cost savings because all net income goes to offset electric bills!”
Finally, Blue Ridge Electric is committed to cooperative principles and local communities. “Your board recently adopted a new capital credits plan which will allow the cooperative to retire capital back to members at higher levels once we meet certain financial strength measures,” Johnson said. “The most important measure is member equity — or the amount of money we as members have invested in Blue Ridge over the years. The cooperative should exceed a 40 percent equity level in 2013, which means we’ll move from a capital credits retirement of 1.5 percent to a retirement of three percent. The board also agreed to retire this additional amount to active members which means your capital credits check or bill credit will increase next year by a multiple of 2.7. In simpler terms, this means if you received a $40 capital credits check this year, you’ll get a $108 check next year,” he explained. Johnson cautioned that the projections are subject to yearly performance and annual board approval for a capital credits retirement.
Johnson concluded by saying that the cooperative’s service area is still continuing to overcome the impacts of the Great Recession of 2008. “We’re working hard with other leaders to strengthen our local economy and find better economic opportunities for the people of our area. That’s why we’re so proud of our Members Foundation and the fact that thousands of our members voluntarily round up their bill each month (to donate to the Foundation). This year, we’re introducing “impact grants” that will be larger in size but must produce tangible results in improving economic opportunity, access to quality medical care or educational processes that help prepare for a new and different economy.”
“We’re very proud to serve the energy needs of northwestern North Carolina,” Johnson said. “By working together, working harder, and working smarter, we can keep our communities strong and viable and continue to be a great place to live, work, raise a family and enjoy life!” he concluded.
Blue Ridge Electric serves some 74,000 member accounts in Caldwell, Watauga, Ashe, Alleghany, Wilkes, Avery and Alexander counties. For more information, visit www.BlueRidgeEMC.com. Find us on Facebook at www.facebook.com/blueridgeemc.