Reflecting on the early days of public power, electricity was seen as a great equalizer. In lighting up their towns, public power utilities were bringing a technology otherwise only enjoyed by people in larger cities to small towns and remote locales. These utilities made sure that the ensuing comforts, security, and benefits of this now essential service were available to everyone, not just the affluent.
In a 1932 campaign speech in Portland, Oregon, President Franklin D. Roosevelt referred to public power as a “yardstick,” in that people served by a private for-profit utility could judge the quality and rates of their utility provider against what is possible with a public power model. Roosevelt asserted that this measurement by the people was necessary, and that it is not possible for the government and regulatory agencies to ensure that the public gets a “fair deal” in every case.
Even though his words were spoken before the Rural Electrification Act, when only 11% of rural households had access to electricity, Roosevelt alluded to how quality of service and rates affect the true access to the service.
“The price you pay for your utility service is a determining factor in the amount you use of it,” he said, comparing the U.S.’ per capita use to Canada’s, which was nearly double at the time.
Today, utilities continue to see this truism play out in the patterns of how customers use electricity. We also know that households with high energy burdens aren’t always able to capitalize on energy efficiency programs and technologies.
Although the idea of equity is embedded within the public power model, it takes continual effort to understand, preserve, or remedy any challenges to how different customers access or use electricity. Especially as technology continues to evolve our relationship with – and reliance on – electricity, utilities should work closely with all members of a community to make sure utility decisions reflect local values; to strive for affordability and fairness in rates; to have a workforce that represents the community we serve; to contribute to the community’s success. The articles throughout this issue present different ways of how utilities can examine and address inequities in access to electricity in modern society, as well as efforts to expand broadband at the municipal level.
While we’ve come a long way since Roosevelt’s time in building access to electricity, we’re not done.
Nearly a century after a majority of Americans gained access to electricity, there are still people in the United States who are disconnected from the electric grid – and not by choice. Most of this population lives in the Navajo Nation – a vast area encompassing parts of Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah. According to the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority, about 14,000 homes in the Nation are not connected to the grid. These families rely on everything from wood burning stoves to diesel generators to flashlights and distributed resources to provide minimal levels of energy, heat, or light for the most essential times. But by and large, because of a lack of an electrical connection, they do not have reliable access to basics like water and food storage.
NTUA has been hard at work the past few decades to connect thousands of families to the grid. The challenge is becoming greater as the remaining homes are more remote and isolated. We at the American Public Power Association are glad to again partner with NTUA to solicit volunteers for Light Up Navajo, an initiative to electrify homes within the Nation. We invite members to consider sending crew members to join with NTUA crews for a week or two to help with the effort.
Thank you to those members who supported this effort in 2019, to those who plan to in 2022, and to all of you working to improve how your communities access and use electricity.
Throughout our history, by virtue of sticking to our core values — community ownership, nonprofit operations, responsive service, local decision-making — public power has remained an example of how utilities can serve all customers affordable, reliable electricity.
After all, as Roosevelt said, “it is the purpose of the government to see not only that the legitimate interests of the few are protected but that the welfare and rights of the many are conserved.”