Energy Justice at Municipal Utilities

Its importance and pathways for engagement

By Ethan Kirkham, Research Fellow

November 2021

On the first day of the month, somewhere in that stack of envelopes you’ve brought in, sandwiched between the rent and insurance, is the electric bill. In your head you know exactly the last day you can go through them one by one to pay your dues and move on with your life until next month. Maybe it’s winter, so you know you can get away with putting off that electric bill a little longer without getting shut off – so you fill up your gas tank instead to get you to work ‘til the next paycheck. ‍

For many of us, that bill is a source of anxiety that happens to have a company name stamped on the front. We didn’t choose that company, and there never seems to be a positive circumstance that we have to correspond with them outside of regular payments. But, that’s the way it’s always been—we tend to think—it’s just a fact of life. Well, if you’re one of the 22.5 million American customers served by a municipal (city-owned) electric utility then that monthly piece of mail is a whole lot more than just a bill. It represents one of the most direct ways that the average person can engage with equity and energy justice: people served by these municipal utilities can have a say in what happens if you can’t pay that monthly bill, where that energy comes from in the first place, and maybe even measures to help reduce that cost.

If you are served by a municipal utility (a.k.a “muni”) you are not just a customer, you are a core part of the utility’s operations; you are the ratepayer that keeps the utility financially viable, the voter that chooses who makes decisions, and the voice that reminds the utility to whom they are accountable. Unlike investor owned utilities which are held accountable by state and federal agencies, locally elected leaders have full authority over municipal utility operations. By engaging muni customer programs, participating in the election process, attending public meetings, and encouraging other members of the community to do so as well, you can influence energy justice in the decision making process as well as the ensuing distribution of benefits and burdens. Engaged communities make for more conscious and accountable leaders.‍

In the same way a municipal utility can—through policy—perpetuate cycles of poverty and systemic racism, it can also be a steward for its community, bringing prosperity to all of the people within it by addressing energy injustices.‍

What is energy justice?

In social justice literature, energy justice can be understood with “three philosophic tenets… distributive, recognition and procedural justice. Distributive justice deals with the distribution of material outcomes or public goods. Recognition justice considers which social groups are ignored or misrepresented. Procedural justice calls for more democracy, openness, and inclusion in processes of decision-making.” While our energy systems in the United States inadequately fulfill these tenets, munis—being publicly owned and not for profit—are positioned to ensure energy justice in their communities. Policy is key to addressing the unjust distribution of benefits and burdens of energy, and a necessary part of seeing that policy adopted at munis is strong engagement from the community.‍

What are the benefits and burdens of energy and how are they distributed unjustly?

Electricity is something essential to our “modern” lives: lighting, heating/cooling, cooking, refrigeration, internet access, public transit, healthcare devices… many things that an energy secure person might take for granted. Electricity is key to prosperity and now new developments are making energy usage more efficient and even putting generation to the direct benefit of customers via rooftop, community solar, or other local energy systems.  At the same time, not everybody gets to access these basic needs, and very few get to enjoy the advancements in technology. ‍

Meanwhile the burdens of energy: land use, pollution, and operational costs can, inversely, actively harm people. Pollution from fossil fuel generation facilities pose threats to local air quality, water quality, ecosystems, and food systems. Historically these facilities have been sited in or near communities of color and low income communities, displacing people and leaving them with the brunt of the environmental and health harm. Byproducts of burning coal include ash ponds and gas pollutants, which permeate the environment with toxics like ground-level ozone and mercury. Though most coal plants are expected to retire by 2030, many utilities are looking towards ‘natural’ gas to make up for the lion’s share of their energy load post-coal. Despite the green-washed name and the rather successful propaganda campaign by the industry would suggest, burning natural gas (or more appropriately called methane gas) creates air pollutants that lead to respiratory and cardiovascular conditions all the same. Without specific care given to justice in the new deployment of energy infrastructure, be it fossil fuel or renewable energy, we can expect these spatial and environmental energy injustices to continue. Or, with that care and attention, we can have our communities enjoy the benefits of electricity equitably, and share the burdens fairly.‍

The operational costs recovered by the utility through bills is a burden that all customers do take on. However, that burden hits low-income folks the hardest since they must attribute a greater proportion of their income to energy. This is because we have the unjust circumstance in the United States where  essential services like healthcare, education and electricity are treated as luxuries. Assistance programs and protections do exist, but ultimately the paradigm is: if you can’t pay your bill, you’re getting shut off. If you don’t qualify for protection, or if you don’t have the proper communication channels to get protection, you’re getting shut off. You’re losing access to something which has become essential to life. This, of course, is one of the many ways in which unjust systems further harm low-income communities and institutionally reinforce cycles of poverty. Late fees and reconnection fees are only a valid disincentive for people who have the means to pay in the first place, otherwise it’s just compounding the problem. Utility disconnections sever access to employment, education, support, and consequently prosperity. This is also one of the many ways in which Black people face systemic racism, getting shut off three times as often as white people. For undocumented people, setting up and maintaining correspondence with a utility can be seen as risky, and not without evidence. ICE has used utility data to track down undocumented people for deportation, and that is just one instance of many leading to a distrust of institutions which is a huge barrier to assistance, and consequently energy security. ‍

This is not an inevitable fact that comes with utility operations, but a policy choice made by elected or appointed people. Muni leaders have the power—no pun intended—to address electricity burdens outside of an electric rate. They have the means to do comprehensive outreach to build trust with their customers. They don’t even have to shut off people who haven’t paid, it is a policy choice to do so. The reason that energy injustice exists at the municipal utility level is that it is codified in policy. But it doesn’t have to be.‍

How can you engage with your muni?

Although munis come in many different sizes, geographies, political climates, regulatory climates, and financial conditions, it remains that they are all accountable to their customers. Without the expectation of shareholders, munis can focus their attention on making their service the best possible for their customers. The way they go about doing that is dependent on who is getting elected into these positions and how the community is letting their needs and desires be known. Attending public meetings gives you the opportunity to speak with these leaders directly. Participating in assistance programs or voluntary giving programs is another way to signal to your utility that there is tangible need and interest. Talking about these issues with your fellow community members helps make everyone more conscious not just with what issues the community is facing, but how they can all help address those issues. Helping bring utility issues to the conversation in city council elections means you can know how utility issues will be handled by those looking to lead your community—or you could even look to step into one of these leadership positions yourself if that is something you would want and are able to do!‍

Cities with utilities giving appropriate attention to the vast energy inequities and injustices that their communities face have task forces, boards, climate plans, programs, workshops, focus groups, and so much more. They have protections for vulnerable or historically underserved customers and programs to share the benefits of energy efficiency and emerging technology with their low income customers. All of that comes from a justice-oriented governing body and an active community.  Lastly, munis are just one part of a city’s government. Especially if the muni is governed directly by the city council, engaging with your muni is not just engaging with electric utility issues, it is also engaging with a wide range of municipal operations from transportation to land use to social services to education to housing and so on. Seattle’s Racial Equity Toolkit is utilized by the city’s various departments, including their muni. All of these things are vitally important to the health and equity of our diverse communities across the United States and all of these things are underlied by the way in which we power our society. ‍

My hope is that, after reading this, rather than seeing your electric bill as another monthly due, you instead see it as a small piece of a process which you are a powerful part of—a process that has profound impacts on equity and energy justice in your community.

‍For an overview on what munis are and why they’re important, check out this explainer on our blog.

Ethan Kirkham is the Research Fellow at Climate Cabinet, focused on public utilities. After completing his Bachelor’s Dissertation on climate policy and justice, Ethan began getting involved in energy justice advocacy at the Oregon Public Utility Commission regarding disconnections and arrearage management during COVID pandemic and beyond.