There is a renewed US national movement afoot to replace corporate utilities with public (citizen-owned) utilities. This is not a new idea. There have been energy cooperatives in the Midwest for nearly a century and a half. There is even an organization, The American Public Power Association (APPA), that provides support for these public power companies. Its purpose is: “To partner with members to promote public power, helping community-owned utilities deliver superior services through joint advocacy, education, and collaboration.”
What is the impetus behind this cause? The American Public Power Association explains:
In place since the 1880s, the model is simple: distribute electricity to local customers on a not-for-profit basis. The focus is on customers. Rates are cost-based. Service is reliable. Dollars spent on electricity stay in the community and are re-invested there. Customers are the owners and — through elected or appointed governing boards or city councils — the decision makers for their utilities.
Here’s an interesting adjustment to that APPA quote on the first public utility. If we use the term broadly, and not only focus on electricity, according to The Salina Evening Journal, in Salina, Kansas, November 6, 1922, page 13, as reported in the ‘Public Utilities’ Wikipedia page: “The first public utility in the US was a grist mill erected on Mother Brook in Dedham, Massachusetts in 1640.”
Let’s take a moment to look at the scope of the US utilities. According to Statista, “In the United States, there are around 3,000 electric utility companies providing power to more than 140 million customers. These utilities were responsible for an electricity generation of more than 2,200 terawatt-hours in 2022.” The estimated 2022 annual revenue was $488.4 billion. No small potatoes.
Campaigns to convert private utilities to public utilities are currently running in 12 communities. Grist reports: “Around a dozen communities across the country have launched campaigns to get rid of their investor-owned electric utilities — the for-profit companies that distribute electricity to three-quarters of U.S. households — and replace them with publicly owned ones. Calling their goal “public power,” advocates argue that existing utilities have saddled customers with high rates and frequent outages, while lobbying to delay rooftop solar and other climate policies. Advocates say local ownership of the power grid would lead to lower electric bills, a quicker transition to renewables, and greater accountability to customers.” Public power structures would also allow for accelerated grid improvements, infrastructure investments that have sometimes taken a backseat to stock buybacks, and investor dividend distributions under the private utility model.
These are laudable motives, but the private utilities are not taking this lying down. Last year, Maine citizens voted on a referendum to convert the two private utilities to public utilities. The private utilities took several tens of millions of dollars of rate payer funds to defeat it. Unfortunately, the private utilities won the referendum. The way referendums work is that it is not uncommon that they are defeated the first time they are floated, but they sometimes win during a subsequent attempt.
One of the citizen activists who worked for the public utilities referendum in Maine, Jim Marshall, shared his thoughts with CleanTechnica: “Spending almost $40 million to sow doubt and mistrust, it turns out, can go an awful long way towards killing what would have been a new and optimistic beginning for Maine’s electric power consumers. Despite a valiant effort on the part of advocates for publicly-owned utilities, I’m afraid the bad guys won.”
The battle for public utilities is an uphill battle. The media have been paid promotional advertising revenue for decades by the incumbent private utilities, and are beholden to them. The 200+ Private Utility Commissions (PUCs), and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), which is a part of The Department of Energy (DOE), are loaded with private industry insiders. The citizenry is easily scared by claims told by the media, and their utilities, and average citizens are not in good positions to question the accuracy of those claims because they are not experts in energy. The utilities have direct communications with all of their customers monthly in their monthly bills, and by email. It’s not an easy task to win against such a formidable force.
In addition to the struggle to convert private utilities to public utilities is the ongoing fight to stop corporate interests from privatizing existing public utilities. One of these campaigns that was lost was in El Paso, TX. JP Morgan Chase bought El Paso Electric in 2019. Several of the board members received millions of dollars in bonuses.
This struggle is a climate crisis struggle. Generally, public utilities have opposed rooftop solar, community solar projects, and slow walked larger private projects. While public utilities have instituted utility-scale renewables projects, they typically only do so for financial motivations without regard for the climate emergency. This retards the progress of conversion to full renewables, which is what is needed forthwith if we are to improve our chances of avoiding accelerating climate disasters.
This is a list of the groups behind these campaigns, and organizations that support public utilities. If you are in a position to lend assistance, or would like to learn more on the topic, here is the contact information.
Power San Diego, San Diego, CA
Metro Justice, Rochester, NY
Ann Arbor for Public Power, Ann Arbor, MI
Maine Public, Bangor, Lewiston, Portland, ME
Office of The Public Advocate for the City of New York, New York, NY
We Power DC, Washington, DC
Public Power New Mexico, Santa Fe, NM
South San Joaquin Irrigation District (SSJID), Escalon, Manteca, and Ripon, CA
Power to the People Milwaukee, Milwaukee, WI
The Utility Reform Network (TURN), Oakland, CA
Decorah Power, Decorah, IA
Tucson, AZ is studying the potential of a public utility. There appears to be no campaign HQ at this time.
Supporter: Russell Lowes, solar energy advocate. Involved with the study: Tucson Deputy City Manager Tim Thomure.
The Next System, Public structure think tank, activist center, and supporter of public utilities, a project of The Democracy Collaborative, University of Maryland
The Democracy Collaborative, University of Maryland
Th!rd Act, Ripton, VT
This is the source for some of this list.
Keep up the good fight. More good trouble ahead.
Have a tip for CleanTechnica? Want to advertise? Want to suggest a guest for our CleanTech Talk podcast? Contact us here.
Latest CleanTechnica TV Video
CleanTechnica uses affiliate links. See our policy here.