Building ambassadors through education: Teaching board members the benefits of public power

In public power, local elected officials and governing boards can be valuable allies in sharing the benefits of community ownership. But before they can be ambassadors for public power, governing board members and other stakeholders must learn what it means to have a locally owned utility and how much that utility contributes to the community.

From skeptic to champion

What does a new Chick-fil-A restaurant in Lexington, North Carolina, have to do with learning about the benefits of public power? Everything.

Lexington’s path to getting the Southern fast food dining staple to come to town started in 2011, with the education of a newly elected mayor.

Newell Clark ran for mayor on a platform focused on lowering utility bills for the 20,000 residents of the town of Lexington, about 20 miles south of Winston-Salem in central North Carolina. The municipal utility in Lexington provides electricity, natural gas and water to the town.

“I was very skeptical as a citizen; I didn’t know how it all worked,” Clark recalled.

Shortly after being elected, Clark searched out the minutes from the city council’s meeting in 1976 where it voted to join and form the Western Power Agency (now ElectriCities of North Carolina). He then began asking questions and reading more about the benefits of public power.

“My skepticism was based on a lack of truly knowing what public power meant,” Clark said. “I didn’t realize what it meant to be mayor of a city [that owned a] utility and what was available to us through our membership in public power.”

Clark said he quickly realized that he needed to learn as much as he could about the benefits of public power so he could explain it to his constituents and to new city council members.

Today, Clark holds an orientation with newly elected city council members that begins a running dialogue on the benefits of public power.

“I think it’s really important to have a mayor and elected officials who are able to speak directly about a utility,” he said. “People want to hear from their elected officials, but far too often they don’t have that education and knowledge. It’s too easy to say, ‘Oh, this is where we get our power,’ but it’s much, much more than that.”

Sharing the benefits

Brian Horton, president and general manager of the Kissimmee Utility Authority in central Florida, gives newly elected council members an initial orientation to public power that includes a high-level overview of the utility’s operations.

“We can fill up a whole day, and it can be a lot to take in, in just one meeting,” Horton said.

KUA was established in 1901, and it serves about 80,000 customers in the city of Kissimmee and neighboring central Florida communities. KUA is the sixth largest public power utility in Florida.

After the initial orientation, KUA holds regular monthly meetings with new council members to gradually build their knowledge base. The topics in those sessions might include the responsibility of the board, the utility’s bylaws, ethics and the benefits of being a public power utility.

“They are always surprised by how much we do for our community,” Horton said. “When they learn how a portion of the revenue generated from the utility supports other municipal programs, like public safety, it is eye opening for them.. Some of them are also surprised by how much aid we provide to our sister cities during storm season.”

Horton encourages new and veteran board members to get out into the community to see firsthand the benefits that public power provides to both nonprofit groups and for-profit businesses.

“New board members might not realize the economic development incentives we offer to attract new businesses to our community, which in turn create job opportunities for our ratepayers,” Horton said. “They are always impressed to find out the incentives we offer to businesses to come to our service area.”

“One of the really nice things about public power is that we get policymakers from quite a diverse set of backgrounds,” Scott Corwin, executive director of the Northwest Public Power Association, said. “Some will have an interest in energy or utility management, some are former utility employees, and some are concerned citizens or business people.”

Whether new to the role or experienced, it’s important for commissioners and general managers to get training on evolving topics in the industry and the duties and responsibilities of governing board members.

“Some parts of the industry are changing so quickly, it can be hard for sitting board members and managers to keep up. It requires constant education,” Corwin said. 

In the last five years, thousands of individuals have taken these courses from NWPPA. On the national scale, thousands of governing board members and utility leaders have taken similar courses through APPA’s Academy to learn about the benefits of public power and key utility operational areas to govern effectively.

“That dynamic of being a utility owned by the consumers means that you have to be very responsive to customers,” Corwin said. “So, teaching an elected official how to implement or refine that on the ground is very important.” 

He said learning the history and background of public power in the region is “fundamental to the public power business model,” and that several of the courses focus on teaching that background.

“I’m still learning some things, and I’ve been studying public power pretty intensely for a couple of decades,” said Corwin, who helped write Public Power Chronicle, a book on the history of public power in the Northwest.

Bigger together

Christopher Schoenherr, director of agency and government relations and chief external affairs officer at the Southern Minnesota Municipal Power Agency, said keeping an ongoing dialogue with mayors and board members is key to public power’s success.

SMMPA, a joint action agency that provides generation and transmission services to 18 public power utilities in Minnesota, offers an initial two-hour orientation for newly elected mayors, city council members and general managers that “gets everyone grounded in what our role is as a JAA and how we work,” Schoenherr said.

The class covers everything from how the JAA was formed to its new strategic initiative of being 80% carbon free by 2030, and how the JAA operates within the Midcontinent Independent System Operator markets. The class also covers how utility finances are structured, how energy efficiency programs work, and the value of public power.

“It’s definitely drinking from the fire hose; we fit a lot into that two-hour period,” he said.

SMMPA’s outreach doesn’t stop with that initial orientation. Schoenherr and his team use that initial meeting as just the beginning of a long-running conversation.

“We follow up and check in with them. If they have questions, we want them to know we’re here if they want to bounce things off of us,” he said. “We want to provide value to them and let them know that regardless of the size of their utility, as a JAA, we can punch bigger together, rather than individually.”

More than electricity

It was that same kind of relationship with ElectriCities, a JAA made up of public power utilities in North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia, that helped bring a Chick-fil-A restaurant to Lexington, North Carolina, in 2017.

Textile and furniture manufacturing historically had been the center of Lexington’s economy. But in the 1990s, those industries began moving out of the country, taking with them well-paying jobs that supported Lexington and other small towns in central North Carolina.

When Clark was first elected mayor in 2011, Lexington was still working to retool its economy and rebrand itself. But questions remained as to how it would rebrand itself and how a small town could afford a marketing campaign to publicize the rebranding.

Clark learned that he could turn to the economic development department at ElectriCities to help jump-start Lexington’s economy.

“We didn’t have the staff to really market and rebrand the town. So, we partnered with ElectriCities to get their marketing help,” Clark said. “I had no idea how to get the attention of a big restaurant chain. But they did.”

Lexington welcomed Chick-fil-A in 2017, and three years later a Starbucks opened next door. The town now has a growing retail sector to serve a booming housing market and a growing population that’s attracted to the pace of life in a small town that’s within easy reach of the Research Triangle of Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill and the town of Wake Forest, North Carolina.

Clark said the Chick-fil-A has helped bring a sense of pride to the community.

“What made it possible was working with the economic development department at ElectriCities,” Clark said. “We needed help, and they had the expertise and understanding of small public power cities.”

Clark now frequently takes calls from other small-town mayors asking for insights into how Lexington grew its economy.

“It’s always my delight to say, ‘You have to learn about the depth and breadth of public power,’” he said. “Public power is not just about generating electricity.”