[Transitioning utilities to public ownership could help lay the
groundwork for a renewable, just future.] [https://portside.org/]
PUBLICLY OWNED UTILITIES COULD HELP FIGHT THE CLIMATE CRISIS
October 25, 2019
_ Transitioning utilities to public ownership could help lay the
groundwork for a renewable, just future. _
, Getty Images
Earlier this month, Pacific Gas & Electric, the investor-owned utility
company that supplies power to much of California, cut off electricity
to over 700,000 customers
The company argued that such a drastic measure — the largest planned
power outage in the state’s history — was necessary to prevent
Yet for some activists, this bleakly framed choice served as another
reminder that investor-owned utility companies are not positioned to
manage our energy futures, especially as climate change raises the
In recent years, activists around the country, including in New York
City, Boston, Providence, Chicago, Boulder, and Washington, D.C., 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. In Northern California, the Let’s
Own PG&E [https://letsownpge.org/] campaign emerged shortly after the
the deadliest fire in California history, which was caused by PG&E
In other parts of the country, activists are fighting against utility
companies’ direct contributions to the climate crisis and systemic
The fight in New York City has grown particularly heated over the past
few months. In July, in the middle of a deadly heat wave, Con Edison
intentionally cut off power
to some of New York City’s poorest neighborhoods, sparking outrage
Last month, at a rally outside the National Grid office in downtown
Brooklyn, activists from groups like Stop the Williams Pipeline
Coalition and the New York City Democratic Socialists of America spoke
out against investor-owned utility corporations’ continued
investment in gas pipelines. In particular, they’re angry about
National Grid’s push for the highly contested, twice-denied Williams
that would cut through New York Harbor
and proposed rate hikes
from the two major utility corporations.
“Both ConEd and National Grid are proposing to raise our rates to
expand fossil fuel infrastructure,” Lee Ziesche, an activist with
Sane Energy Project, told the crowd. “What they are proposing
completely fails the climate test.”
The ultimate goal for some activists is to abandon investor-owned
utility corporations altogether and build a more democratic system in
their place. Last year, NYC-DSA launched a Public Power
[https://publicpower.nyc/] campaign to make the energy grid publicly
owned. Building on this idea, on October 19, 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.
“We could decommodify clean energy and guarantee it to all New
Yorkers as a human right, much in the same way we already guaranteed
clean water through our public water utility,” said Amber Ruther, an
organizer with NYC-DSA, during a recent hearing
before the New York State legislature.
Ruther argued in her testimony that investor-owned utilities are not
positioned to tackle the climate crisis. “The incentive structure
for private utilities was designed to encourage them to build as much
infrastructure as possible
Ruther. “But now that incentive structure is obsolete and it's
preventing us from achieving our climate goals.”
To replace investor-owned utilities, the Public Power campaign is
calling for a large-scale public utility. This could mean the
expansion of the New York Power Authority, the largest state public
utility in the U.S.
[https://www.nypa.gov/about/the-new-york-power-authority], or the
municipalization of private utilities. Once established, a public
utility would be responsible for the major work of transforming the
grid, Aaron Eisenberg, an organizer with NYC-DSA, explained to _Teen
Vogue_ in an email.
Alongside the large-scale utility, the campaign envisions smaller
community-owned energy projects. As a model, Eisenberg points to
Sunset Park Solar [https://sunsetparksolar.org/], a cooperative solar
array, which will be owned and operated by the same people who
purchase its power in central Brooklyn.
The idea of publicly owned utilities is quickly gaining traction.
Mayor Bill de Blasio recently suggested socializing the city’s
In late July, New York City council member Costa Constantinides
partnered with the NYC-DSA to host a town hall in response to
ConEd’s proposed rate hikes. Over 100 people, including
assemblyperson Aravella Simotas
and public advocate Jumaane Williams, traveled in the pouring rain to
attend the town hall, where many demanded public utilities.
But no one from ConEd or the New York Public Service Commission, which
oversees the state’s utilities, showed up.
Jamie Tyberg, an organizer with New York Communities for Change, sees
publicly owned power as an important step in transforming our
relationship to resources and energy, which have for too long been
regarded as infinite.
“We are not going to be able to escape this crisis without replacing
the system,” Tyberg, who has been volunteering with the campaign,
told _Teen Vogue_.
In response to the claims made in this article, Michael Clendenin,
ConEd's director of media relations, wrote in an e-mail, "We can
maintain high reliability and have a clean energy future. Con Edison
is committed to helping New York State achieve its clean energy goals,
and through our Clean Energy businesses we are the 2nd largest solar
producer in North America." A spokesperson from National Grid
responded to _Teen Vogue_'s request for comment by providing links to
their plan for "investing in the natural gas networks making them
safer and more reliable, advancing a cleaner energy future.” (The
idea that more gas networks will advance clean energy has no basis in
A Widespread Movement, With Old Roots
Public utilities are hardly a new idea — over 2,000 public utilities
[https://www.eesi.org/obf/munis] already exist in the U.S. — but the
growing demand for a more just energy system has lent this ownership
model new energy.
This summer, Vermont senator and 2020 presidential candidate Bernie
Sanders released his own version of an ambitious Green New Deal
[https://berniesanders.com/en/issues/green-new-deal/], which outlines
a plan for renewable, publicly owned energy.
Sanders’s vision may look something like the energy system in the
(admittedly less populous) state of Nebraska, which consists entirely
of public power districts, publicly owned utilities, and energy
cooperatives. The state abandoned investor-owned utilities in 1946 and
remains the only state to operate fully on public power
Since then, Nebraska has been able to maintain some of the lowest
rates of electricity
[https://www.chooseenergy.com/electricity-rates-by-state/] in the
This future could also resemble Sanders’s own town of Burlington,
Vermont, which has had a municipally owned utility since 1905
In 2014, Burlington became the first city in the U.S. to move to 100%
while maintaining the same rates since 2009.
The city recently laid out a roadmap
[https://www.burlingtonelectric.com/our-story] for an even more
ambitious goal: moving to net-zero energy by 2030, which the city
defines as “sourcing at least as much renewable energy as it
consumes in energy for electric, thermal, and ground transportation
Public utilities were also a component of the Green New Deal’s
predecessor: Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. The 1936 Rural
passed to provide loans to isolated rural areas to start their own
electric cooperatives. The goal was simple: to give farmers, left in
the dark by profit-motivated utility companies, affordable
“At the time, investor-owned utilities were not really willing to go
into rural America
because the sparsely populated areas did not promise good business,
explained Johanna Bozuwa, who works at the Democracy Collaborative.
While today’s campaigns have broader visions, the main advantages of
a public utility remain. They are designed to answer to the people
rather than a profit motive. Public utilities have lower average rates
than investor-owned utilities and any revenue made goes back into the
community, rather than the pockets of CEOs and private shareholders.
For instance, Austin Energy has used its revenue to support street
lights, public safety, libraries, and parks
Investor-owned utilities don’t have the same incentive. “As a
topline, investor-owned utilities have a terrible track record,”
said David Pomerantz, who works at the Energy and Policy Institute, a
watchdog organization that tracks energy utilities. He points to the
fact that investor-owned utilities are often the top contributors to
and spend millions on lobbyists. This year, National Grid even asked
its own customers to help lobby for fracked gas
However, Pomerantz cautions that public utilities are not blameless.
Like private utilities, public utilities have trade associations, like
the American Public Power Association (APPA) and National Rural
Electric Cooperative (NREC). Both groups
[https://www.eenews.net/stories/1060010539] have fought
EPA standards for clean air, water, and carbon pollution, Pomerantz
explained in an email.
Bozuwa, of the Democracy Collaborative, sees the current moment as an
opportunity to learn from public utilities’ mistakes and push this
model in a new, bolder direction. “Public ownership is built within
the context of the people who are organizing for it,” said Bozuwa.
This grants the system its power and, historically, its limitations.
A New Era of Energy Democracy
Today’s emerging campaigns are calling for a new system of “energy
democracy” altogether and share an overarching goal of climate
justice. What this entails takes many forms.
For instance, The #NationalizeGrid [https://www.nationalizegrid.org/]
campaign in Rhode Island has been fighting, alongside its coalition
partner, the George Wiley Center [https://www.georgewileycenter.org/],
for statewide public power.
“It’s a pretty simple piece of legislation [requiring] a very
minor tax increase across the state, [that would mean] low-income
payers would only need to pay a certain percentage of their monthly
income as their utilities payment,” explained Corey Krajewski, an
activist with the campaign.
Boston’s Take Back the Grid [http://www.takebackthegrid.org/]
campaign has been focused on ensuring workers and communities of color
in Boston benefit from the shift to a publicly owned renewable grid.
Similarly, Northern California’s Let’s Own PG&E
[https://letsownpge.org/] campaign has been thinking through ways to
ensure that the PG&E workers are included in the new energy system.
One idea they’ve been considering is a proposed ballot measure to
protect these workers’ pensions, explained Emily Algire, one of the
organizers in the campaign.
In Maine, the local power supplier has been accused of erroneously
In response to disproportionately high rates, a group of over 600
rate-payers is suing
the Central Maine Power Company, while also backing a bill
to replace the two main power providers in the state with a statewide
public utility, introduced by Representative Seth Berry. For Berry,
it’s a major opportunity to address the climate crisis.
“Basically, we have to electrify our entire economy, and we have to
do that really fast,” Berry said. “It's like the foundation that
we’re building our home on for the future.”
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