Each year in October, we take time to celebrate Public Power Week—October 6-12 this year—and National Cooperative Month. Communities across the country hold local activities to note the occasion and to highlight the value of owning their own electric utilities.
What is this celebration all about, and what does it mean to be part owner of your electric utility?
While national and state proclamations about the advantages of consumer-owned electric utilities date back to the 1960s, the enthusiasm behind these celebrations is as vibrant today as it has ever been. Electric utilities owned by their consumers number close to 3,000 and cover a majority of the landmass in the United States. Some originated more than 130 years ago, when cities and towns started creating electric distribution systems not long after the invention of the lightbulb. Many of the electric cooperatives and public (or people’s)utility districts were created a little bit later as the movement gained steam during the 1930s and 1940s with the push for broader electrification of less populated areas.
Put simply, people took control of their own destiny by providing electricity on their terms in areas not adequately served by large, private companies of the day. What this meant to farm families in the early 20th century—or to the war effort in the 1940s or to the expanding cities and industries of the last 70 years—is a fascinating story of community leaders, hardworking engineers and courageous lineworkers who saw the need for new levels of electric service.
These people—this community—made it happen for you.
Just as important as the past achievement of public and cooperative power is our vision for the future and the large steps already underway with the support of local customers/owners. This includes advancements in technology that allow better service, more customer knowledge and more control over that service. It also includes access to more advanced energy-efficiency programs and new renewable power sources in many areas.
As these changes take place, the complexion of our industry is also rapidly changing. A large wave of retirements is leading to notable shifts in the age, gender and race of our workforce. Among the top managers of the 156 utility members of the Northwest Public Power Association, 40% have turned over in just the last five years. This shift requires a ramp up in the education and training of utility staff and board members dealing with the wave of industry changes.
National Cooperative Month and Public Power Week are good times to remind policymakers why local control of electricity matters. Recently, we have seen threats to the sources of available financing for capital projects needed at public utilities. There have also been threats to local governance where federal or state agencies seek to add additional regulatory burdens or override the wisdom of locally elected boards and commissions, who answer directly to the consumers who elected them.
An important source of the value provided by consumer-owned utilities comes from the principles that are part of the fabric of these utilities. Both the cooperative and public power models share important elements. These utilities all:
- Exist to serve the community that owns them and serve the needs of local customers rather than distant stockholders.
- Have a not-for-profit status that means a high level of service comes at the lowest possible price.
- Keep money in the local community, not just with lower rates, but by reinvesting locally to stimulate economic health.
- Have rate pricing levels that are locally controlled so customers have a say.
- Hire workers who are your friends, family and neighbors who care about ensuring reliable, quality service.
- Represent democracy in action. Boards, councils and commissions are elected by the local citizens. They hire the management of the utility and are directly responsible to those who elect them.
- Are a part of the community. They are personally invested in being good stewards of the assets and of the environment in which they live.
Your utility is a local lifeline that supports and strengthens your community. Working side by side, we are more powerful together. This month, I invite you to celebrate your utility and the public power model that has served us so well.