Community Engagement

How public power is suited for industry changes

“It’s a new dawn, it’s a new day, it’s a new life for me, and I’m feeling good. I’m feeling good.”

Feeling Good

As of this writing, we are seeing major downward trends in deaths and hospitalizations from COVID-19, communities are rebounding economically, and public power utilities continue to keep their communities running. The future is looking up.

Of course, this positive outlook is not intended to minimize the challenges still ahead. Our industry remains in a time of rapid change and disruption — from a shifting generating mix with new players and market rules and regulations to a host of technologies that necessitate new workforce skills, cybersecurity considerations, and being able to meet a changing set of customer needs and expectations. Put in the proper context, the public power model is well suited to take on these challenges. Allow me to elaborate.

Local decision-making. Local governance can enable innovation in myriad ways — through rate design, infrastructure design and operations, use of new generation technologies, energy efficiency programs, and advanced communications networks allowing for digitization (or “smart grid”) and deployment of external broadband. Examples of these initiatives and tools abound in this and previous issues of Public Power magazine.

In one-on-one conversations with public power general managers, it is clear that communities across the country are highly innovative, with unique — or customized — priorities and emphases in each locale. This innovation underscores the key nature of the relationship between public power utilities and their governing bodies. Ongoing communication and transparency enable trust in decision-making on both sides. Fostering such communication, as well as ongoing education of locally elected officials about public power’s business model, is an essential role of a public power general manager and senior executives (with help from the American Public Power Association, when needed).

Superior reliability. Time and again, the people working in public power demonstrate their steadfast commitment to keeping the lights on. This commitment is most visible among the crews working to restore power in extreme weather and other events, but it is also evident in how maintenance is prioritized and when deciding what sources and safeguards make sense for our communities. Maintaining a highly reliable system brings confidence within our communities that businesses can operate uninterrupted, residents can access what they need to work, learn, and live well, and basic safety and essential needs are not compromised. This commitment is borne out by the data, which show that in major events or not, public power customers experience a half to a third of the outage time of customers of other utility types.

A focus on affordability. The ability to set rates locally and to provide power at cost, underpinned by access to municipal bonds, contributes to public power utilities consistently offering the lowest rates in the sector. They also continuously evaluate their power supply portfolio — whether their own generation, purchased power, or a mix — to manage costs. They also constantly advocate for better processes within regional markets and at the national level to ensure transmission costs remain just and reasonable.

Valuing sustainability. Because public power employees live and work in the communities they serve, they want their utility to be clean and efficient. Environmental stewardship has been a tenet of public power for many years. In fact, the public power utility in Waverly, Iowa, deployed one of the first modern utility-scale wind farms in the Midwest in 1992. Public power utilities have used their relationships within the municipal government structure to create “win-win” scenarios. For example, many public power utilities have deployed projects whereby they use methane from local landfills as a generation fuel source. Capturing this greenhouse gas is important, as the Environmental Protection Agency notes that methane has 25 times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide. Chambersburg, Pennsylvania’s public power utility is deploying such a system, which is a source of pride in the community.

Embracing partnerships. The nature of our business model lends itself to helping each other out — through mutual aid when major disasters strike, through knowledge sharing, mentoring, and research, development, and demonstration projects. Public power entities enter into consortia with each other and with other trusted partners to leverage economies of scale for larger projects that maintain local support and priority. This network cannot be overemphasized.

These attributes, among others, give public power utilities powerful tools in their toolboxes to meet evolving customer expectations, increasing market complexities, and shifting climate/environmental goals. It’s a new day, and I’m feeling good.