Eyeing the Past and Future

Posted: December 3, 2020, 12:00 am

WEC highlights two decades of changes in virtual annual meeting

WEC CEO Les Moreland, center, addresses the membership during the 2020 annual meeting as board members and WEC employees listen.

Both hindsight and forethought were on display during Wiregrass Electric Cooperative’s 2020 annual meeting.

CEO Les Moreland chronicled the growth WEC has experienced since 2000 in his “Hindsight 2020” address to members. Meanwhile, the WEC board of trustees conducted the annual meeting virtually in mid-October to maximize safety during the global pandemic.

The meeting’s format took some adaptation, especially since members were allowed to register and vote on-site. Members were then encouraged to watch the annual meeting online to reduce crowds at the Hartford corporate offices.

“We were quite pleased with the number of members who registered and voted by mail or on-site,” WEC Chief Operating Officer Brad Kimbro says. “We appreciate and applaud our members for complying with our requests and helping us adjust to the unique situation. We pray the 2021 meeting can return to a sense of normalcy.”

Seamlessly carrying out a mostly virtual meeting required plenty of planning and coordination from WEC employees and others.

On-site Adjustments

In order to maintain social distancing while registering several members on-site, WEC stationed employees throughout the corporate headquarters campus to direct the flow of traffic.

WEC Manager of Member Accounts Kay Sullivan guides a member through the registration and voting process.

Employees offered greetings and handed out the cooperative’s 2021 calendar as members drove up to the building. From there, members were guided to a set of numbered parking spots, where they waited in their cars until summoned to the registration line.

Registration occurred at office lobby windows, where member services representatives presented the ballots. Voting took place underneath the front office portico.

“We are blessed with a wonderful facility that provided the flexibility to socially distance,” Kimbro says. “We thank all of the employees who helped with the meticulous setup that resulted in a smooth registration process for our members.”

Unlike years past when the meeting was in the cooperative’s truck bays, this gathering was in the headquarters ’ community room. WEC’s energy provider, PowerSouth, helped to produce an online broadcast and recording of the meeting, which can be found on the cooperative’s Facebook page and YouTube channel. PowerSouth provided multiple cameras and other equipment needed to integrate PowerPoint slides into the video feed.

“We on the board appreciate all of the efforts made by our employees and PowerSouth to help us conduct this meeting safely while affording us the opportunity to conduct our business in an open, honest, and fair way,” says Donna Parrish, the District 2 representative who served as president during the meeting.

20 Years of Growth

Wiregrass Electric Cooperative District 2 Trustee Donna Parrish listens to CEO Les Moreland’s address during the 2020 annual meeting.

Moreland’s address to members focused on the substantial changes the cooperative has experienced since 2000 as well as the challenges it faces going forward.

During the past 20 years, WEC registered significant growth, expanding to about 25,000 meters — approximately 7,000 more than it had in 2000. Growth occurred in spite of national and regional population trends showing a population shift toward cities. Municipal-based and investor-based power organizations serve most larger cities.

As the cooperative has grown, so has its investment in the power grid. The cooperative’s physical plant is valued at $120 increase from 2000 when it was valued at about $50 million.

WEC has implemented the newest technologies throughout the system, including the introduction of smart meters and a supervisory control and data acquisition system that allows cooperative employees to identify and address issues within moments.

Additionally, WEC experienced a significant change in its membership. In 2000, WEC’s membership was 92% residential and 8% commercial, numbers that adjusted to 80% and 20%, respectively, by this year.

Overcoming Challenges

Despite the increase in commercial accounts, WEC’s membership mix remains unbalanced compared to sister cooperatives, which typically serve 70% residential accounts.

A WEC member votes in this year’s annual meeting.

Since the revenue performance of commercial accounts generally outperforms that of residential accounts, WEC faces an economic hurdle. The cooperative also encounters population density issues, which limits its opportunities to spread costs across a wider range of members.

Despite the challenges and the large investments in the grid, WEC has not instituted a rate increase since 2010.

“If you would have told me that members would be paying the same rates now as they were 10 years ago, I wouldn’t have believed it,” says Moreland, who served as WEC’s chief financial officer before becoming CEO. “That is the result of good board leadership, good management, and good strategies.”

Moreland highlighted four areas where WEC overcomes the financial challenges: The cooperative maintains a strong debt management program, highlighted by a recent refinancing of one loan that will save $6.2 million over the loan’s term. The creation of a bill prepay plan has significantly reduced the amount of delinquent debt the cooperative must overcome. Smart meters and other technological investments have reduced labor costs.

And WEC’s financial investments earn the cooperative an average of $600,000 annually.

As a result of careful management, WEC’s board of trustees retired sizable amounts of capital credits — most recently paying $1.9 million from 1998.

New Horizons

WEC employees Mark Olive, middle, and Charlie Daugherty, right, direct a member where to park before the 2020 annual meeting.

Moreland also detailed a few adjustments members will see in the near future, primarily in how their electricity is generated.

In 2023, PowerSouth will finalize a project to convert a coal-burning power plant in western Alabama to natural gas. In 2022, PowerSouth will also complete the installation of an 80-megawatt solar farm in southern Covington County, further diversifying its portfolio.

Those changes, coupled with the expansion of a nuclear plant in South Georgia, means almost all of the power WEC members receive will result from low- or no-carbon emission sources. That dramatically differs from 2000, when 60% of a member’s power came from the burning of coal.

WEC and PSE are committed to pro- viding environmentally friendly energy, as well as continuing to focus efforts on reliability and affordability to our members.

One Constant

WEC Accountant Matt Storey directs traffic ahead at the corporate headquarters in Hartford.

While much has transformed in the past two decades, one thing has not: WEC’s commitment to its membership. WEC received high marks on two membership satisfaction surveys in 2020, including one that rated its coronavirus pandemic response efforts.

“We want to be your trusted and preferred energy provider,” Moreland says. “We like to act and serve in such a way that if you had a choice in energy providers, you would pick us. That governs how we think when we interact with our members.”

Since that focus has worked in the past, it will carry the cooperative through any future challenges.

“We’re all about serving members,” Moreland says. “That’s the cooperative difference.”

2020 Annual Meeting Election Results

An auditor from Jackson Thornton delivers a snapshot of WEC’s finances during the annual meeting.

Wiregrass Electric Cooperative recorded the following results in 2020 annual meeting voting:

  • District 3 trustee — Incumbent John Clark Jr. ran unopposed. District 6 trustee — Incumbent Kip Justice ran unopposed.
  • District 9 trustee — Incumbent David Winstead defeated challenger Nolan Laird 806-491.
  • Bylaw change — Approved by a 1,165-224 margin, the bylaw amendment allows WEC leadership to apply a member’s earned capital credits toward delinquent debt at the leadership’s sole discretion.
  • Board of trustees officers — District 5 trustee, Tracy Reeder, president; District 9 trustee, Winstead, vice president; District 1 trustee, Debra Baxley, secretary