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Big Country EC News

Members Reunite for Open House

BCEC hosts first in-person member meeting in three years

Big Country Electric Cooperative’s 13,000 meters are connected by 5,362 miles of power lines—the co-op’s members spread out across 12 wide-open West Texas counties.

But you’d never know it.

At the co-op’s member appreciation open house September 27, tightly knit groups of friends and neighbors checked in on one another, asked about family, exchanged handshakes and hugs, and offered help with lawn work.

It was a co-op family reunion, just about 3.5 years since BCEC’s last in-person annual meeting, April 25, 2019. The last three meetings were held virtually due to a combination of factors including the pandemic and rising costs.

And it was a success.

“I think it went well,” said Matt Mueller, a 13-year member of the board of directors. “A lot of people in here were talking about how they liked it. It’s a little more personal, and you get to talk face to face with people.”

Linda Diggs, right, speaks with General Manager/CEO Mark McClain.

Ann Sanchez chats with co-op members.

The open house, held simultaneously at the co-op’s offices in Roby, Snyder and Stamford, served some of the same purposes of the annual meeting and was held on the same day that the co-op conducted its virtual annual meeting.

The estimated 250 attendees and their guests were able to gather, speak with co-op leadership, enjoy some refreshments and gifts, and of course, win a total of 38 door prizes—TVs, tools and kitchen appliances doled out after the event.

“We do recognize that that human contact, seeing a face to put with a name that you may have seen in our magazine, that you may have talked to over the phone, is really important to our members, and it’s equally important to us,” said Sarah McLen, BCEC key accounts executive.

Image showing director vote totals

Members of the co-op had the option of voting by mail or online as part of the virtual meeting. The 392 submitted ballots reelected Mueller to represent District 1 and elected Zachary Logan to replace the retiring Carl Marugg as the representative for District 2. Logan earned 56.9% of the votes, edging Kenneth Buerger.

Director elections are an important part of the cooperative principle of Democratic Member Control, and BCEC General Manager Mark McClain says that participation is up dramatically since the days of in-person voting at the annual meeting.

“Our voting that we have started doing online, we’ve had more participation than we’ve ever had before, the last two years,” he said. “Our membership is more engaged with this setup than in the past.”

A video released the same day as part of the virtual annual meeting updated members on the goings-on of the past year, including major load growth mostly due to oil field operations.

From left, BCEC employees Latrice Baucom and Sarah Johnson share a laugh with member Kathy Claxton, holding her energy efficiency kit. The kits, which contain LED lightbulbs, night lights and other useful gadgets, have become an open house tradition.

Member Danny Diggs makes himself a plate.

The delicious and beautiful array of treats was prepared by Sharon Pierce and Nina McClintock of Stamford.

“We are planning on installing four new substations to take care of this growth,” said Paul Jones, vice president of operations for the co-op, in the video. “It’s really good for the members of Big Country because not only do we get the oil field growth, rebuilt lines and new substations, even if the oil field goes away or declines in some way, the substations and lines are still rebuilt and take care of other members in our area.”

BCEC plans to break ground on the new substations in Sylvester, north of Rotan, North Hamlin and Camp Springs in early 2023.

The video also addressed rising costs that have affected the co-op, including the February 2021 winter storm and the effect of runaway natural gas prices.

“In February 2020 we paid about $1.2 million for our purchased power from Golden Spread [Electric Cooperative],” said Latrice Baucom, vice president of finance and accounting. “In February 2021, because of winter storm Uri, it cost us about $14 million to purchase power from them. But because of our relationship with Golden Spread, because of their financial stability, they were able to assume a portion of that, as were we, and that has really helped us minimize the impact on our members.”

Longtime BCEC member Richard Spencer greets a fellow member.

BCEC employees Redonna Guynes, Leticia Fuentes and Brian Hinkle are ready to welcome guests.

Natural gas prices are at a 13-year high, which has made electricity more expensive across the U.S., including for members of Big Country EC, resulting in power cost adjustment, or PCA, charges of $1.5 million in 2021, according to Baucom. This money, collected at 1 cent per kilowatt-hour through June 2022, passes through BCEC and goes directly to the co-op’s wholesale power provider.

The video also touched on new features of the co-op’s SmartHub app for mobile devices, which can now be used to quickly report outages; the 10-year pole replacement program; and a study the co-op is conducting to determine the feasibility of supplying high-speed fiber-optic internet access to members.

“We are looking into it to see if it would be a wise offering for the co-op to undertake to help improve the quality of life for our members, especially those who have discovered that they may be working from home a lot more now,” McLen said. “We’re in the very first stages of looking into that, but it is something that we realize more and more is as much of a utility need for many of our folks as water and electricity.”

Community has always been at the center of BCEC’s decisions—since its original cooperatives were formed more than 80 years ago by groups of neighbors who banded together to form a utility.

It’s those regular folks who are still McClain’s favorite part of the job, and he was glad for the opportunity afforded by the open house.

“It’s a time to step away from the everyday demands of the job and refocus on what matters most: our members and employees,” he said. “We invest in our community because we want to improve the quality of life of the people we serve.”

That’s the cooperative difference.

“We’ve dealt with a lot of complex issues the last few years, between COVID and the rising cost of generation,” McLen said, “and we want to try to answer questions before they’re asked. We want you to call us, and I think that’s a big thing that sets us apart from a lot of other utilities. We’re here for you.”

From left, Andrew Porter, John Van Mater and Corbin Smith prepare annual reports, energy efficiency kits and other co-op giveaway items for members.

Co-op directors, from left, David Beaver, Danny Helms and Steve Moore discuss matters of the day while Redonna Guynes assists a member.

Andrew Porter, a BCEC staking technician, enjoyed his role greeting guests and handing out goodies.