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Environment
Energy Efficiency
Electric Vehicles

Public Power: At the Forefront of Innovation

In my 20 years of experience with community-owned, not-for-profit, public power utilities, I know that they want to do the right thing for the people and businesses they serve. The “right thing” means striving to keep the electricity flowing 99.999% of the time as well as keeping the price of electricity affordable. The focus on these essentials has kept publicly owned utilities in the business of serving their customers for decades and, for many, more than a century. 

All of this may sound quaint. What does reliable and affordable service mean for communities when innovation and addressing climate change are the current focus? To that legitimate question, I would say that public power utilities have been at the forefront of innovation since beginning operations 140 years ago. Public power utilities have been leaders in every new technology that reduces emissions, enhances reliability, and increases efficiency for customers. Many of those efforts have been “incubated” in our small communities and then extrapolated to larger communities, whether served by public power utilities, rural electric cooperatives, or privately traded investor-owned utilities. Many of these innovations have now been assimilated into regular utility operations such as:

  • Wind generation: Waverly, Iowa, rolled out public power’s first modern utility-scale wind project in the Midwest in 1992.
  • Landfill-gas-to-energy: Projects that siphon methane emissions off of landfills to produce energy are expensive but beneficial (methane has 25 times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide), and very much a public power innovation.
  • Community solar: Public power has extended the concept of community, which is our bread and butter, into the solar arena. Like community swimming pools, community solar projects acknowledge that not everyone can have (nor do they want) solar panels on their rooftops, but they might want a shared approach.
  • Energy efficiency: The Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory recently completed a study, using data provided and reviewed by APPA, that found customers of public power utilities enrolled in energy efficiency programs saved an average of 2.4 cents per kilowatt-hour (kWh) from 2012 to 2017. As not-for-profit energy providers, public power utilities are uniquely motivated to provide energy efficiency programs to their customers.
  • Electric vehicle infrastructure: For example, the Sacramento Municipal Utility District in California was an early leader in electric school buses, partnering with three local school districts in 2017 to support the deployment of electric school buses and associated charging infrastructure. Now the utility is working with school districts to explore vehicle-to-grid technology.
  • Hydroelectric uses: The histories of many public power utilities are intertwined with the development of hydroelectricity, so it is no wonder that this continues in our exploration and use of technology including pumped storage and run-of-the-river projects.

Public power utilities continue to explore many other innovative and interesting ideas, in many cases through support from our Demonstration of Energy and Efficiency Developments (DEED) research and development program, like floating solar arrays on wastewater treatment areas, producing and using hydrogen, and novel energy storage practices. 

This adds up to a strong focus on innovation that is community-driven – a prime example of bottom-up innovation. This perspective drives the thinking that public power utilities bring to the national debate around addressing climate change and other environmental goals. Balancing innovation with affordability, economic development, and reliability.

Over the coming weeks, we will explore more about the national public power perspective on how to best and realistically address ambitious goals to achieve zero emissions for the electricity sector to meet the climate change challenge. To meet this challenge, we must balance affordability and reliability, while leveraging innovation from the community up.