Community Engagement

Large public power utilities model innovation and community

When the American Public Power Association featured small public power utilities in these pages in March 2018, I called my column “Small is Beautiful.” And when some people think of public power, they think of small utilities. But they would be wrong, or at least only half-right. Half of the most populous cities in the U.S. are powered (at least in part) by electric utilities owned by their communities and run by local governments. More than 30 million Americans — 10% of the population — are served by large public power utilities.

Large public power utilities play many important roles.

First, having utilities that serve communities both big and small shows that public power is a viable and valuable option to power homes and businesses anywhere in the country. Look no further than San Francisco, which is looking at municipalization as I write this. As more customers reconsider their relationship with their utility, community-owned utilities in larger cities demonstrate how municipalization offers flexibility, choice, and state-of-the-art technologies. These large public power utilities help their cities thrive, because they are woven into the fabric of their communities. They maintain a local flavor while managing a complex tapestry of diverse business interests and customer expectations.

Second, with greater size comes greater opportunities to explore what is possible for the utility of the future. Having a diverse pool of customers means that larger public power utilities can test out new potential rate designs or investigate what makes programs effective. From reshaping customer service to testing the latest technology and ensuring a diverse generation supply, large utilities consistently show the path forward. They are in the vanguard of shaping the future of public power and of the utility industry. This is evidenced by the frequent national recognition that large public power utilities receive for being among the most progressive, forward-looking utilities in the country.

Smaller public power utilities might see the extensive staff and resources of the large utilities and assume that their experiences are not relatable or transferable. As one official from a small city put it, the large utilities “have more employees than I have customers.” Despite our differences, both large and small utilities can still learn from each other. Employees and customers are people whether they are in a town of 1,000 or 1 million. While some of the large utility efforts are specific to a larger city environment, many of the large utilities’ experiences can be scaled down to smaller public power utilities that share the business model of community ownership.

We have much to learn from the experiences of our large public power utilities. It wouldn’t be possible to capture all their insights in a single issue of the magazine. That’s why I’m glad our Association community is so strong and that we are able to foster a culture of shared knowledge and industry progress. As part of our Association’s latest strategic plan, we’re investigating ways to increase the sharing of knowledge, resources and best practices among members.

All presentations from our conferences and summits are posted online. Utilities that are DEED members have access to project reports from throughout the program’s nearly 40-year history. At least eight Association listservs focused on different areas of interest have frequent and robust online conversations. Representatives from our larger member utilities also often relay to me and Association staff that they are happy to act as mentors or consultants for other utilities, whether sharing their experience in cybersecurity or communications.   

They might serve millions of customers, but the largest public power utilities still stay true to the root of what it means to be public power — locally owned, community-driven entities.