By Carol Vaughn —
Speakers during a question-and-answer session at Accomack-Northampton Electric Cooperative’s annual meeting Thursday, Aug. 26, in Tasley, voiced concerns about internet access on the Eastern Shore, saying electric cooperatives in other parts of the United States are playing a role in providing broadband service to customers.
Speakers also urged the ANEC board of directors to make changes to increase transparency.
“When the pandemic began, one of the critical issues on the Shore that stood out for us was internet access — overnight, it went from a nice-to-have to a necessity,” said Sue Mastyl, of Harborton, chairperson of the Citizens for a Better Eastern Shore internet access committee.
Mastyl said five of the 13 Virginia electric cooperatives, and more than 300 of 900 nationally, have invested in broadband.
CBES recognizes ANEC has supported the Shore’s internet providers, Mastyl said, but added, “(W)e feel you can do more.”
She asked ANEC to find ways to help the Eastern Shore Broadband Authority, including financial and logistical support and coordination for underground installation.
“The A&N board and CEO have expressed concerns that getting involved in broadband might jeopardize the financial security of the organization, with their priority being the members, who are also the electricity customers. However, these same members/electricity customers are also broadband customers (or would like to be). Staying out of the game to keep electricity costs low, which means that broadband remains expensive or inaccessible for many, hurts all of us on the Shore,” Mastyl said, asking the ANEC board to revisit the issue.
Donna Bozza, CBES executive director, commended ANEC for “its top-notch job in delivering reliable electrical service.”
Still, she said the cooperative could do more to enable members to access reliable, affordable internet.
Bozza said ANEC recently instituted a change that will raise pole rental rates for the ESVBA and increase rent on the building that houses the ESVBA, resulting in an additional $300,000 in expenses for the authority.
She asked ANEC’s board to review the increases “in a publicly accessible manner.”
ESVBA Executive Director Robert Bridgham in an email to the Post Wednesday said Bozza’s statement is not accurate.
“The ESVBA is in discussions with the power company at the current moment about several open items but there is no specific changes that have been set in stone,” he wrote.
Peg Volk, of Cherrystone, called ANEC “an impressive organization,” but urged the board “to make some changes about some transparency, in that direction, so that we can be aware of your efforts and be able to have input.”
She urged ANEC to publish its board meeting minutes.
Debbie Campbell, of Silver Beach, also praised ANEC’s service, but urged the cooperative to improve transparency.
Butch Williamson, ANEC chief executive officer, addressed broadband in his report and also responded directly to Mastyl’s comments earlier in the meeting.
He said, in response to Mastyl, broadband is brought up and discussed at board of directors meetings on a regular basis.
“We continue to have the conversation and we continue to meet with our counterparts, with all different entitites on the Shore, to make sure that if there’s something that we can do — not only broadband authority but all providers here — if there’s something that we can do to assist with the deployment, that’s what we’re here to do. We are still having those conversations today and I hope, I really hope, in the near future that we can have some good news to share with you and all that — but we’re still having the conversations and that’s all I can say at this time.”
“The cooperative understands what high-speed internet access means to the local community,” Williamson said during his report.
Williamson said ANEC “continues to support the expansion of broadband throughout the Eastern Shore and has from the beginning, when broadband was developed and deployed back in 2009.”
“Since then, tens of millions of dollars have been spent or earmarked to increase broadband availability locally and several entities are currently working to provide this service,” he said.
He said ANEC is aware that other cooperatives are starting to offer broadband service, but said, “In those cases, the electric cooperatives step in because of the lack of the infrastructure to support their electric distribution system. Here on the Shore…that is being supplied by the current broadband providers today.
“In all of those cases, local or national broadband providers would not assist a cooperative developing broadband infrastructure for electric system communication needs; therefore, the cooperatives themselves are building infrastructure for the cooperative and they are leasing the additional capacity to third-party internet service providers for use in the retail application for broadband.”
Cooperatives entering the broadband arena have “different sets of diverse challenges and do not use the one-size-fits-all approach for this solution,” he said, adding, “Does that mean A&N has fulfilled its needs or needs of our members? The answer is no.”
Williamson said ANEC “will continue to explore the expansion of broadband services to underserved areas, support the current providers for new expansion, and will do where it can without hindering the safe and reliable, affordable electric service that we historically provide to you today.”
Williamson said he will provide more detailed updates about the cooperative in coming months in Cooperative Living magazine, which co-op members receive.
Williamson also spoke about the pandemic’s effects over the past 18 months.
“We recognize that our members and our employees have been impacted greatly and we want you to know we are here to provide you assistance,” Williamson said.
Since March 2020, ANEC complied with Virginia’s disconnect moratorium and stopped charging late fees, he said.
More than $152,000 in Members Helping Members funds and relief funds have been applied to members with past-due bills since that time, according to Williamson.
As of Aug. 30, ANEC will return to normal billing practices. Members with past-due bills are urged to contact ANEC to set up a payment arrangement.
“The last 18 months were challenging but work continues. We will respond to the needs of the community. Emergency response, outages, ongoing operations, and maintenance did not slow down or stop,” Williamson said.
With recent upgrades to ANEC’s metering infrastructure, the cooperative soon will expand billing options to include prepaid metering, which allows members to make payments into an account to cover the cost of future energy use to help control their budget and eliminate deposits and late fees.
More than 120 members have installed solar arrays or subscribed to ANEC’s solar energy program, power for which is generated near Eastville.
“A&N was among the first cooperatives in the state to offer solar subscriptions,” Williamson said, adding more solar initiatives are in the works.
ANEC will be facilitating installation of electric vehicle charging stations on the Eastern Shore and piloting a program to encourage off-peak charging, according to Williamson.
Old Dominion Electric Cooperative, ANEC’s supplier, in February announced its goal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 50% by 2030, with a goal of net zero emissions by 2050. More than 100 megawatts of solar power over the next two years is under development in ODEC’s region.
ANEC board chairman Addison Nottingham Jr. noted the cooperative has had no employee lost time on the job from accidents for over three consecutive years.
He said the ANEC board this year voted to retire $1.2 million in general capital credits, meaning members received a bill credit on their accounts.
ANEC employees in the past year volunteered more than 120 hours, cleaned more than four miles of roads, donated more than $4,200 to local charities, and partnered with the USDA to make energy efficiency improvements to homes of six cooperative members, Nottingham said.