Community Engagement

Public power strong

For most of my adult life, I have been a “recreational” or “fitness” swimmer (that’s a nice way of saying that I am not a competitive swimmer). Life as an energy lawyer and working mom, and more recently as the Association’s CEO, can be stressful. Morning workouts in the pool help reduce that stress and keep me in decent shape.

In my 40s, I got a bit more ambitious, and started doing a few open water events. My goal was not to win, but just to go the distance. One of the hardest things to do in open water swimming is to go against the current. It can be disheartening when you swim hard, but the buoy you are aiming for stubbornly refuses to get closer. It takes grit and concerted effort to make any progress — and that is when the frequent practices in the pool stand you in good stead. When you do finally make it to your marker and the eventual finish, you have a sense of accomplishment. Like Friedrich Nietzsche supposedly said, “that which does not kill us makes us stronger.” 

That is true of public power as well. For well over a century, we’ve fought many battles to preserve the benefits of community ownership and our very existence as public power utilities. Those battles serve to remind us why we are here — to provide affordable, reliable and environmental responsible electric service to our communities.

Recent years have seen considerable ebbs and flows in threats to the public power business model.

There continues to be considerable interest in moving to the public power model. In the past year, efforts in Pueblo and Boulder, Colorado; Pittsburg, Kansas; San Francisco and South San Joaquin, California; and Maine have picked up steam (read more about municipalization efforts in the Power of Local Solutions.

On the flip side, three public power communities — Frederick, Colorado; Vero Beach, Florida; and Anchorage, Alaska — moved to sell their electric utilities in the past year. Other potential takeovers have been averted or are still under consideration (see Managing Public Power Takeover Attempts).

While every community must decide what retail electricity business model is best for it — after being fully informed about the pros and cons of its options — the American Public Association works with communities considering municipalization or sellouts to educate them about the benefits of public power. And I truly believe that each such experience strengthens the national public power community through lessons learned and new trends.

In fact, even when communities consider public power but in the end decide to forego making the change, it brings to light the good that public power can do. It reminds me of what President Roosevelt said his famous Portland Speech on September 21, 1932. He described public power as a “yardstick” against which to judge private utilities’ rates and service. “The very fact that a community can, by vote of the electorate, create a yardstick of its own, will, in most cases, guarantee good service and low rates to its population,” he said. “I might call the right of people to own and operate their own utility something like this: a ‘birch rod’ in the cupboard to be taken out and used only when the ‘child’ gets beyond the point where a mere scolding does no good.”

The recent instances of changes — actual or potential — in public power ownership also remind me of a leader who has inspired me — Alex Radin, the face of public power in Washington for more than three decades. Sadly, Alex passed away right after I became CEO.

Through some of the toughest battles on the energy and environmental fronts, Alex stood up for the rights of the people — including their right to choose not-for-profit public power utilities to be their electricity providers. He believed — as the Association still does — in public power as a force for good in the electric utility industry.

Public power has survived and thrived due in good part to Alex’s untiring advocacy. He left us with the legacy of a simple yet exceptional business model for public power. Do what is best for your customers. Be responsible stewards of both the customers’ money and the environment. Listen to your community and give back to it. It’s a business model that still makes sense in the face of changing customer preferences and is consistent with the growing “back to the community” trend.

When you are faced with the force of the current, you can easily get discouraged. However, we must not forget how much we in public power have accomplished and the good works we do in our communities every day. We have much to be proud of, but we tend to hide our light under a bushel. I understand the temptation to try and stay out of the spotlight, especially given the sometimes toxic nature of public discourse today. But, as the veterans of many battles point out throughout this issue of Public Power Magazine, we need to let our light shine — to tell our story and to build relationships in the community. Our Association has many resources to help you do just that.

Public power has faced and surmounted many challenges over the years. With every challenge comes an opportunity, if we can identify and pursue it. And as we continue to take on challenges to our very existence we should be guided, as Alex was, by what is the right result for those we serve.