Community Engagement

Public Power and the strength of the pack

The yearly round of American Public Power Association meetings and conferences always starts with the Joint Action Workshop, held early in January. This meeting is tailored for public power Joint Action Agencies, and it always reminds me how important our JAAs are to public power. The JAAs aggregate the loads of their respective member distribution utilities, which provide retail electric service in their own cities and towns. JAAs provide a great variety of services to their member distribution utilities — from bread and butter" power supply and wholesale transmission services to value-added services like energy efficiency programs and rate studies.

One purpose of the workshop is for JAAs to hear from each other about the services they provide to their members — which ones do the distribution utility members like most, which ones are cost effective, and what needs are not being filled that need to be? One of the presenters was Mrg Simon, legal director at Missouri River Energy Services. MRES is a joint action agency headquartered in Sioux Falls, SD, that serves 60 towns and cities in the Upper Midwest.

Mrg included in her presentation a quote from Rudyard Kipling's poem, The Law of the Jungle: "For the strength of the pack is the wolf, and the strength of the wolf is the pack." I did not know much about Rudyard Kipling or his poem, so on the plane home, I checked it out. The poem comes from the second Jungle Book. And it turns out that the poem influenced the formation of the Cub Scouts, according to the Boy Scouts' website, the terms "Law of the Pack," "Akela," "Wolf Cub," "grand howl," "den," and "pack" all come from theJungle Book, and a strong influence from Kipling's Jungle Book remains in cub scouting today. This makes some sense, given that wolves raised Mowgli, the jungle boy. The Jungle Book itself has stayed part of popular culture, with the Walt Disney animated movie released in 1967 and a new live-action version coming out this spring.

The more I thought about it, the more I agreed with Mrg that the analogy of the pack is very applicable to the joint action model, and indeed, to public power as a whole. The typical public power utility is a small, community-focused entity (the median utility serves around 2,000 meters). This certainly has benefits — the utility is community-owned and not-for-profit, so its only mission is to provide reliable, reasonably priced, and environmentally responsible electricity to the community. As the employees of the utility live and work there, they know their neighbors and can contribute substantially to the community through value-added services and economic development.

However, a utility of 2,000 meters can be at a disadvantage in today's very complex wholesale power and transmission markets. And retail customers are increasingly interested in an array of new products and services, including distributed generation, green power options, and demand response opportunities.

That is where joint action — the strength of the pack — comes in. JAAs can and do aggregate their members' needs to provide them with power supply and transmission services. But they increasingly are providing their members other services as well. At the workshop, we heard from three JAAs (American Municipal Power, WPPI Energy, and the Indiana Municipal Power Agency) that are working with their distribution utilities to install "behind the meter" solar generation in member communities. And we heard how JAAs in the same region (like the Northern California Power Agency and the Southern California Public Power Authority) are working together to improve the array and efficiency of the services they offer their respective distribution utility members. This is truly the strength of the pack at work.

But it does not stop with JAAs. APPA itself is another example of the strength of the pack. APPA aggregates the grassroots of its membership to advance public power's priorities on Capitol Hill, and to advocate for public power before federal agencies and departments. APPA's R&D program, DEED (Demonstration of Energy & Efficiency Developments) aggregates members' research dollars to fund cutting edge member research and scholarships. And Hometown Connections aggregates the buying power of APPA member utilities, working with vendors to provide a suite of energy-related products and services members can use to improve their own service offerings.

Individually, public power systems serve communities large and small across the country. But together, we provide electric service to 1 in 7 Americans. That is an impressive statistic — and it comes from the strength of the public power pack. Let's not forget that we are stronger when we work together. Because it is a jungle out there."