October 25, 2019; Teen Vogue
As Greta Moran writes in Teen Vogue, many different movements across the country are arising with a common demand: placing the ownership of many of the nation’s investor-owned utility companies into public hands, either through local government or cooperative ownership.
As Moran explains, “In recent years, activists around the country, including in New York City, Boston, Providence, Chicago, Boulder, and Washington, DC, as well as Northern California and Maine, have been working to transition utilities to public ownership, which would make them accountable to the public instead of investors.”
Moran acknowledges that public utilities are “hardly a new idea—over 2,000 public utilities already exist in the US.” Indeed, in the state of Nebraska, the percentage of customers who receive energy from either public or co-op firms is exactly 100 percent.
Clearly, it is possible to provide power reliably through co-op and/or public means. In fact, in many rural communities—like Nebraska, as it happens—electricity only arrived because of federally backed loans to electric co-ops. As NPQ noted two years ago, “By the 1930s, nearly 90 percent of US urban dwellers had electricity, but 90 percent of rural homes were without power.” But federal loans made through a New Deal program to member-owned nonprofit cooperatives changed those numbers: “By 1953, 90 percent of rural Americans had power.”
Today, a similar shortfall regarding broadband access exists in many parts of rural America—and, again, cooperatives are being posited as a response, with Mississippi’s state legislature and governor overwhelmingly approving enabling legislation earlier this year.
But why the push for public ownership of power provision right now? The reasons vary by community. In many cases, the push for a Green New Deal is behind the activism. Earlier this month, on October 19th, reports Moran, “a coalition of grassroots organizations launched Movement for a Green New Deal, a campaign that will demand utilities be publicly owned as a key part of this transition. Giving the public control over New York City’s energy future, activists argue, could lay the groundwork for the just, rapid decarbonization of the energy sector.”
Some campaigns, while sharing a desire for greener energy, have focused more on ensuring residents have affordable power. For example, the #NationalizeGrid campaign in Rhode Island, backed by the George Wiley Center, is seeking statewide public power, which would result in low-income payers only needing to pay a certain percentage of their monthly income as their utilities payment, according to Corey Krajewski, an activist with the campaign. Boston’s Take Back the Grid campaign, Moran adds, has “focused on ensuring workers and communities of color in Boston benefit from the shift to a publicly owned renewable grid.”
In Maine, the local power supplier has been accused of erroneously charging customers, leading to a lawsuit of the Central Maine Power Company by a group of over 600 ratepayers. The group is also backing a bill to replace the two main power providers in the state with a statewide public utility, introduced by Representative Seth Berry.
Can public ownership successfully advance environmental goals? In some cases, at least, the answer is clearly yes.
Moran notes that five years ago, Burlington, Vermont, where Bernie Sanders was mayor in the 1980s, “became the first city in the US to move to 100 percent renewables, while maintaining the same rates since 2009.” Burlington’s utility has been publicly owned since 1905. Moran adds that “public utilities have lower average rates than investor-owned utilities and any revenue made goes back into the community,” citing Austin Energy in Austin, Texas, as one prominent example of a public utility that reinvests in community infrastructure.
Still as, David Pomerantz, who works at the nonprofit Energy and Policy Institute, tells Moran, public and co-op utilities through trade associations like the American Public Power Association (APPA) and National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA) have often fought EPA standards for clean air, water, and carbon pollution. In short, public and co-op ownership can help address climate change, but only if their public- and member-owners demand it.—Steve Dubb