Powering Strong Communities
Community Engagement

How Public Power Communities Are Shaping the Future of Utilities

It’s no secret that electric utilities are in the middle of a significant transformation. An ever-increasing number of public power utilities have adopted or are looking at adopting clean energy goals, promoting electrification efforts, installing advanced metering infrastructure, and much more.

Specific public power efforts include:

  • Incorporating more clean energy into their portfolios;
  • Promoting the use of electric vehicles;
  • Redeveloping rate design; and
  • Hardening their grid to improve resiliency and reliability.

Private utilities are also taking such efforts on, but the difference with public power is in the motivation for and the structure of the transformation. Here are three ways public power stands out.

1. Change isn’t mandated – but desired

Due to their position as public, community-owned utilities, many public power utilities engage in innovative efforts without state mandates or regulation. All change is driven by the desire of the community. This includes public power utilities that have gone above and beyond the requirements placed upon investor-owned utilities by establishing goals to become carbon-free earlier than proscribed in state legislation. These utilities took these actions because they deemed them to be in the best interest of the local communities they serve.

Local control and decision-making are cornerstones of public power. Engagement with local stakeholders is a centerpiece of the public power model. Existing knowledge of the community, along with continuous communication and piloting of innovative projects allows these utilities to tailor their pace of innovation to local needs and desires. Each community, and therefore every local utility, must decide which technologies and approaches are appropriate for them, and the breadth of public power experience thus far aptly demonstrates that.

For instance, when it comes to rates that work for electric vehicle drivers, some utilities have implemented time-of-use rates, while others offer rebates for off-peak charging, and others offer subscription rates for using local public charging stations. These different approaches reflect the diversity of public power communities and the different pathways available for moving towards the future.

2. Mutually beneficial partnerships – public and private

Out of both necessity and practicality, another common thread is that public power utilities form strategic partnerships with third parties as well as with other public power utilities. For example, Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems’ efforts to develop a small modular reactor involve multiple utilities, project developer NuScale, as well as the U.S. Department of Energy. These different partners are all critical to the future success of the project and further demonstrate how important engagement with multiple parties is for the future of our industry.

Similarly, Seattle City Light is working closely with the City of Seattle in promoting electrification, including the city’s bus fleets. CPS Energy in San Antonio also collaborates closely with the city government in its smart city program. The close relationship public power utilities have with their municipalities allows them to forge mutually beneficial partnerships that further enhance the quality of life in their communities.

3. Knowledge is shared for everyone’s benefit

The knowledge that is shared between utilities is another critical element in this evolution.

One example of this is the Iowa Association of Municipal Utilities’ electric vehicle planning, implementation, and customer engagement toolkit. The Charging Forward EV Toolkit, developed in part with the assistance of an APPA Demonstration of Energy & Efficiency Developments (DEED) project grant, will help utilities forecast EV growth and associated effects on load. This collaboration between the DEED program, a state association, and, eventually, multiple public power utilities, shows how information sharing and collaboration benefits everyone involved and portends future developments which will improve the lives of customers.

Read more examples of public power utilities engaged in transforming the electric industry in APPA’s latest report, Moving Public Power Forward: Community-Driven Solutions for Industry Transformation. The innovations highlighted in the report merely scratch the surface of all the things public power utilities are moving the electric industry forward. Together they show how close collaboration with the local community drives public power innovation in unique ways.

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