By Leslie Gonzalez, Summer Intern, September 2022
I dedicated the past summer to researching municipal utilities in the states of New York, Texas, and Minnesota as an intern for Climate Cabinet. The end goal of this research was to expand our database of public utilities, and begin to identify opportunities where Climate Cabinet could support just and climate-friendly energy policies. Along the way, I gained valuable insights about the landscape of public utilities in these three states, and about power and the future in general.
Municipal utilities are utilities that are owned and operated by a city government. In the state of New York, almost all of these corresponded to villages with populations numbering in the low thousands, with the exception of a handful of towns and cities. Most of these utilities purchased their power from outside sources such as the New York Power Authority (a state-wide public utility) and the New York Municipal Power Agency (a Joint Action Agency (JAA), which is a state-authorized cooperative venture among governmental bodies). Preliminary research revealed that out of 47 municipalities, less than 10 owned their energy generation — but for those that did, fossil fuels were the dominant source. Overwhelmingly, utility oversight in New York came from local elected leaders themselves (usually referred to as the Village Board of Trustees), often working with the utility’s electrical superintendent.
In the state of Texas, most municipal utilities corresponded with cities. Texas’ public utility landscape differed markedly from that of New York: whereas New York had one joint action agency (the NYMPA), Texas had three that I encountered: the Texas Municipal Power Agency (TMPA), Sam Rayburn Municipal Power Agency (SRMPA), and West Texas Municipal Power Agency (WTMPA). Mentions of energy purchases and relations with electric cooperatives, another type of community-owned utility, also appeared more frequently in my Texas research than they had when I’d been researching New York, suggesting that such electric cooperatives play a more prominent role in the Texas public power landscape than they do in New York state. About one third of the municipalities utilized oversight systems in which elected leaders appointed citizens to a special board (often referred to as a Public Utilities Commission) that took charge of the operations and decision-making around the utility. Meanwhile in about two thirds of the public utilities, this oversight was provided directly by the boards of elected officials themselves — most commonly referred to as the City Council.
Out of 123 municipal utilities in Minnesota, my own research only extended as far as 14. However, my research combined with that of my teammates revealed that most of the state’s public utilities corresponded to cities, and in most cases, the utility oversight was appointed by elected officials — either in the form of boards such as public utility commissions, or individuals. Out of the states I researched this summer, Minnesota has the highest number of JAAs. The five that I encountered were the Minnesota Municipal Power Agency (MMPA), Central Municipal Power Agency/Services (CMPA), Southern Minnesota Municipal Power Agency (SMMPA), Missouri River Energy Services (MRES), and Northern Municipal Power Agency (NMPA). Accessibility and transparency of information regarding oversight and energy sources was a major factor throughout all of my research, and throughout my research, I was pleased to find that oversight details were relatively well laid-out on their respective city/utility websites, and easy to locate. One city’s website even included a 28-page pdf on the history of its public utility.
Two major themes interwove my research across these three states: mounting regional environmental crises and the power of local elected officials. In various Texas city websites, this looked like drought alerts, calls for water conservation, and notifications of burn bans due to wildfire risk. In Minnesota, this looked like alerts regarding emerald ash borer infestations being identified in the respective city — an invasive species killing ash trees — and drought alerts as well. Environmental issues such as these are exacerbated by climate change, which in turn is exacerbated by our continued reliance on and favoring of fossil fuels. Evidence I encountered as I searched for information on power plants speaks to the important role that local leaders play here. By appointing qualified community members to zoning boards and environmental advisory commissions, as well as through their own duties, local officials help both to enact responses to climate-related problems and to mitigate future damage. These decisions impact the maintenance of infrastructure, ensure that everyone’s safety and needs are met when extreme droughts and snowstorms hit, inform communities, make certain that pollutants and wastewater are disposed of and processed without harming anyone, and much more. And when it comes to energy, informed and community-focused leaders can be the difference between a just transition to clean energy and the persistence of a pernicious, fossil-fuel-centered status quo.
Climate change is not going anywhere on its own, and without change, its impacts will continue to be felt more strongly and more widely — but just government and informed energy policymaking enacted at the local level on a global scale has the power to make a key difference.