Voice Box: Public Power and Your Community

Consumer-Owned Utilities Offer More than Lower Rates, They Offer Community Support

Cyndi GentryOne year ago, I joined the public power industry. What an amazing ride it has been.

Until then, what I knew about power was limited to “flip the switch and my lights are supposed to come on.” Granted, I still don’t know a lot more about how it works, but I’ve gained a great understanding of and respect for public power.

While programs and services may vary by utility and community, the benefits of public power cannot be denied.

I had always been an investor-owned utility customer. I had no idea how many consumer-owned utilities there are—the Northwest has about 120 publicly owned utilities, serving nearly half the population. Oregon alone has 36 consumer-owned utilities, serving about 1.1 million customers. These customers have local control through local elections of boards and commissions, as well as participation in public meetings.

Public utility districts are subject to open meetings and public records laws, providing transparency and scrutiny. Owned by the customers, public power utilities exist only to serve the customers, not to earn a profit for stockholders. This means public power customers benefit from some of the lowest power rates in the nation. And that’s just the beginning.

Public power is nearly all carbon-free. In fact, about 95 percent of the electricity used by public power customers is clean, green, renewable energy. Here in the Pacific Northwest, we have access to the Federal Columbia River Power System, so we use a high percentage of hydroelectricity.

Northern Wasco County PUD built two small-scale hydroelectric generating turbines at dams on the Columbia River to supplement the power we buy from the Bonneville Power Administration. Wind and solar also are part of the mix.

It doesn’t stop there. Public power utilities and their customers support investing in more renewable options. Surprise Valley Electric Cooperative uses geothermal steam to generate electricity, and Emerald PUD built a facility at the Short Mountain Landfill to use the methane gas for generation.

Before mandates on energy-efficiency standards and IOU contributions to conservation, public power was leading the way. Since the mid-1970s, public utilities have helped customers conserve energy. Depending on their programs, consumer-owned utilities provide grants, rebates, zero- or low-interest loans, or other incentive programs.

Highlights of public power, according to the BPA, Northwest Power and Conservation Council, and individual utilities include:

  • Northwest consumer-owned utilities have helped customers save 2,200 megawatts—enough to power Seattle.
  • Oregon’s consumer-owned utilities helped customers save 710,040,320 kilowatt-hours from 2010 to 2015. That’s what 45,000 homes use in a year.
  • Oregon public power exceeds efficiency savings targets established by the NPCC. The Power Council projects that current levels of conservation will meet increases in demand due to growth until 2035.
  • Combined, public power investments in energy efficiency and other community benefits exceed the 3 percent mandated for IOUs by the Oregon Legislature.

When I think about the benefits of public power, the two most important words for me are local and community. Most of the time, public power utility employees are local. That means swift responses to outages since crews aren’t driving from a distant location.

It also adds a level of accountability for many. When your customers are your family, friends, and neighbors, you want to give them your best.

PUDs and co-ops also build relationships with other local agencies, which can help provide quick, focused resources in the event of an emergency.

Public power utilities are a part of the communities they serve, with a responsibility to invest in those communities. Consumer-owned utilities contribute a higher percentage of revenues to public purposes than what is required by law for the IOUs. Most Oregon public utilities pay 3 percent of revenues annually to local governments in lieu of taxes; some pay more than double that. Most Oregon COUs have low-income assistance programs designed for the needs of their communities. COUs also support economic development, whether it is through a local grant program or through attracting new businesses with low rates. On average, public power puts 33 percent more into their communities nationally than private utilities.

For me, community connection and stewardship are the greatest benefits of public power.