Community Engagement

Public Power Women in History: Carolyn McNeil

Congress initially designated March 1987 as Women’s History Month to honor the women who made historical contributions to the nation’s growth and strength. The resolution also acknowledged that women had been “consistently overlooked and undervalued in the body of American history.”

Looking back through public power’s history, there are many examples of women who have helped shape community ownership of electric utilities in their cities, states, and regions. Last year, the American Public Power Association recognized Women’s History Month in part by highlighting some of today’s women in leadership positions. This year we looked backwards. An examination of our archive indicates that Carolyn S. McNeil (July 19, 1938 – March 15, 2001) from Sandy, Utah, was one of the first women to lead a public power organization.

McNeil was named general manager of the Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems, or UAMPS, on June 15, 1983. The joint action agency was founded in 1980 and today represents 50 community-owned power systems operating in seven Western states. She previously served as controller for both UAMPS and the Intermountain Consumer Power Association, which she would also lead as general manager.

In a 1984 interview for Public Power magazine, McNeil said that her non-utility background prepared her for these roles. She began her higher education with a major in music, but left college to raise two children. She later returned to major in accounting. She said she made the switch after reading in the Wall Street Journal that accounting majors were getting the best job offers after graduation. She had also volunteered for various community projects, which helped finely tune her organizational and interpersonal skills — skills that were beneficial later in navigating political issues and at the negotiating table. “I had to acquire an understanding of the water and power laws peculiar to our state and to our corner of the world. But I spend most of my time trying to get people together to work out problems,” she said.

McNeil also shared in that interview that, upon becoming general manager, she had been asked, “Are you going to be the general manager until they can find a real one?” In an industry that was dominated by men, she said, in a wholly disarming manner, “Perhaps because they are so unaccustomed to women in this type of position, they actually give me more credit than I probably deserve.”

UAMPS credited McNeil with being the driving force through an era of fierce competition and extraordinary growth. While with UAMPS, she was elected president of the Colorado River Energy Distributors Association, participated on the board of the Consumer Federation of America, served on Utah Governor Norman Bangerter’s Task Force on Utility Regulation, and was a member of APPA’s Board of Directors, its Executive Committee, and chaired its Advisory Committee.

Carolyn McNeil

In the mid-1980s, McNeil also chaired APPA’s national campaign to preserve preference and cost-based federal hydropower rates. It was public power’s swift response to a Reagan administration proposal that would upend 80 years of national policy granting consumer-owned electric utilities first purchase rights to federal hydropower. The Reagan administration instead proposed to auction off the power. The $1 million effort – funded wholly by voluntary contributions – sought to explain to the public and congress why the country should maintain federal policies giving consumer-owned utilities first right to purchase federal hydropower at cost-based prices.

Carolyn McNeil, APPA, and other public power leaders at the time also recognized that public power had a big problem: local and national public opinion polls showed that a significant portion of the population – including those served by public power – did not know what public power was. McNeil oversaw the campaign to fix that. The multi-year campaign evolved into both protecting the federal hydropower preference construct and generating greater consumer awareness about public power and its benefits for local elected officials and the public. The campaign sought to tap public power’s latent strength: its identity as a fundamental local institution.

Concurrently, McNeil successfully navigated Utah court cases ensuring that UAMPS members could engage in power exchange transactions with other utilities. UAMPS had sought to increase access to transmission lines and to build its own to maximize the cost efficiency of its members’ power supply for the benefit of public power customers. She also worked to maintain harmony between municipal and cooperative utilities in Utah despite divisive issues at the national level. Her work boosted Utah’s public power utilities into a high national profile and established her reputation as a prominent public power industry leader.

During her tenure with UAMPS she received the APPA Kramer-Preston Personal Service Award. Upon her retirement, she was also awarded APPA’s highest honor – the 1995 Alex Radin Distinguished Service Award – for her exceptional leadership and dedication to public power. 

“Carolyn McNeil was a truly remarkable leader and trailblazer,” said Doug Hunter, UAMPS CEO and General Manager. “She understood the great value of public power and had a vision for its potential. She elevated the status of public power not just in her home state of Utah, but across the nation through her APPA leadership positions. For me, personally, she was a great mentor and example. She built a strong foundation at UAMPS on which we have been able to ascend to greater heights. She is truly deserving of recognition as one of the first and most effective women leaders in public power.”

Carolyn McNeil passed away in 2001. We here at APPA honor her and the women in public power — past, present, and future — for their contributions to advancing public power’s mission. McNeil and the other women who were among the first to hold leadership and other key roles at public power entities have helped demonstrate the variety of career paths for women in the workforce for the past four decades. Today, six of the 25 largest public power utilities are led by women, and three of the 57 joint action agencies are.