The Next Front in Climate Activism Is De-Privatizing Utilities
How 2023 marked a renewed push for public power.
Voters in Maine were confronted with an unusual decision when they went to the polls this November. Question three on the ballot asked Mainers if they wanted to eliminate the two private utilities that delivered electricity to 97% of the state. A new, nonprofit utility called Pine Tree Power would take over the service, and it would be overseen by a publicly-elected board.
Though the proposal may sound radical, it’s not unheard of. Since the dawn of the electric grid, communities have periodically decided to municipalize their utilities. The city of Sacramento, California, took over PG&E’s local electric distribution franchise in 1946. Winter Park, Florida, took over electric service from a company called Progress Energy in 2005. But a takeover at the state level has only been attempted by Nebraska, where the entire state’s electric service went public in the 1940s and has remained that way ever since.
Unlike in Nebraska, the campaign in Maine failed. Seventy percent of voters said “no” to question three. But the ballot measure wasn’t a one-off. This year marked a renewed push for public power that’s growing around the country in light of the challenges of tackling climate change.
Investor-owned utilities have used their vast financial resources and political influence to delay and block the transition off of fossil fuels, in ways large and small, for decades. Activists, tired of trying to work within that system, are turning their attention to what they see as the more systemic root cause — the perverse incentives created by having utilities that need to turn a profit.
Americans often refer to their electricity or gas providers as “public utilities.” But only about 15% of the population is served by a government-owned, customer-owned, or member-owned electric utility. The other 85% are beholden to private companies that were granted monopolies to sell electricity decades ago.
What started as a smattering of independent campaigns to change that ratio started to coalesce into a nationally coordinated movement this year. A few weeks before the vote on the ballot measure, some 70 delegates from about 40 grassroots climate groups from around the country convened for a workshop at the Press Hotel in Portland, Maine. For three days, they exchanged notes and strategies for how to get public power on the agenda in their own cities and states, and reform public utilities in places that already had them. By the end, they had cemented a more energized, organized coalition.
The guiding theory behind the push for public power is that public utilities don’t need to generate returns for shareholders, theoretically enabling them to make investments guided by other priorities, like reducing emissions — and charge customers less in the process.
“We’ve seen time and time again that the market is not going to correct this,” Greg Woodring, a workshop participant from Ann Arbor, Michigan, told me. “Public power gives us the ability to choose where our energy is coming from, the ability to directly make that change without having to ask or plead or beg or incentivize a corporate entity that, at the end of the day, is only making a decision based on what’s going to make the most profit possible.”
But public power is divisive in the larger climate movement. While not necessarily ideologically opposed, critics are concerned about wasting time and money. Private utilities don’t go without a fight, and communities can get bogged down in legal battles for years. The city of Boulder, Colorado, famously tried to wrest control over its electric service from the utility Xcel for a decade, and gave up.
In Maine, the Conservation Law Foundation, a prominent environmental group, warned that the cost of a transition to public power was too uncertain, that it could mire the state in litigation, and that having a publicly-elected board could subject critical energy decisions to “partisan political maneuvering.” Instead, the group made a case for strengthening laws and regulations. However, it also conceded that if the utilities don’t meet metrics of affordability and sustainability they should face stiffer fines, or even lose their ability to operate in the state.
Defenders of investor-owned utilities argue that they have advantages over nonprofits when it comes to building the clean grid of the future. “The investor-owned business model enables companies to raise and deploy massive amounts of capital in an efficient and cost-effective manner, and their purchasing power helps to minimize costs to customers,” said Sarah Durdaller, a spokesperson for the Edison Electric Institute, a trade group for private electric utilities. She told me that the organization’s members’ “commitment to delivering resilient clean energy to our customers has never been stronger, and our focus on affordability has never been more important.”
The Maine campaign was not the first time a shift to publicly-owned utilities has been pitched as a climate strategy. One of the main motivations for Boulder’s effort, which started in 2010, was Xcel’s unwillingness to help the city meet its climate goals. But the increased momentum behind public power in 2023 signaled a new direction for climate activism more broadly, which had seemed to stagnate after the rise and fall of the youth-led Sunrise Movement and the election of Joe Biden.
“This is a site where we can practice democracy,” Isaac Sevier, one of the workshop organizers, told me. “I think that’s something that energizes people, it gives them more hope, it gives them something to be a part of and fight for and struggle for in a time when so many people are turning away.”
The workshop in Maine was convened by a handful of national organizations, including the Climate and Community Project, a progressive think tank, Lead Locally, a group that works to elect progressive candidates, and the Democratic Socialists of America’s Green New Deal Campaign Commission.
The DSA has been a major force behind the recent surge in interest in public power. At the start of this year, it kicked off a new campaign called “Building for Power” focused on trying to strengthen public institutions at the local level. In addition to public power, DSA is advocating for green public housing and transit, and improved public spaces.
“We want to rebuild, and in some cases, build anew, public sector capacity,” Matt Haugen, one of the organizers of the workshop, told me. “Through decades of neoliberalism, the public sector has been hollowed out in the U.S., and we’re seeing in all these areas that it’s clear the private sector just cannot meet these human needs.”
Many of the participants at the workshop were DSA members, but there were also local organizers affiliated with national environmental organizations, like 350 and the Sierra Club, and others from smaller, grassroots groups. There was a freshman in college, a seasoned activist in his 80s, and many ages represented in between. While almost everyone there was from a left-leaning city, they hailed from every corner of the country, including California, Montana, Michigan, Tennessee, Puerto Rico, and Washington, D.C.
Some, like Woodring of Ann Arbor, were from cities that were already in the early stages of considering a public power takeover. His group had convinced the city council to complete a feasibility study on municipalization. Others, like Marta Meengs, from Missoula, Montana, were trying to figure out how to win smaller battles, like the right to have community-owned solar farms. Others wanted to reform existing public power agencies, like Amy Kelly from Tennessee, where the federally-owned Tennessee Valley Authority runs the grid — but is investing heavily in natural gas, and offers few avenues for civic engagement.
One such group had already seen some success. The New York chapter of the DSA passed the Build Public Renewables Act earlier this year after four years of campaigning. The law directs the New York Power Authority, an existing state-owned power provider, to shut down all of its fossil fuel plants by the end of 2031, and expands its mandate to include building renewable energy projects. Most residential customers in New York are actually served by private utilities, but proponents saw the law as a way to get more clean energy built, faster, and with high labor and equity standards.
The Inflation Reduction Act, the climate law signed by President Biden last year, is one reason the tides turned for the New York campaign. It enabled government agencies and nonprofits to take advantage of tax credits for renewable energy projects for the first time, improving the economics of public power.
“It really opens up a huge amount of additional space for public power to be a part of the answer,” Johanna Bozuwa, executive director of the Climate and Community Project, told me.
Though few of the participants had ever met or even heard of each others’ campaigns, the stories that led them to advocate for public power shared a number of common themes: Worsening power outages due to extreme weather. Alarm over the insufficient pace of emission reductions. Outrageously high bills. But perhaps most of all, frustration with constantly coming up against utilities wielding money and influence to fight clean energy.
Woodring, of Ann Arbor, cited a 2022 analysis that found that more than 90% of sitting legislators in Michigan at the time took money from groups and individuals affiliated with DTE, the biggest utility in the state. The company was also tied to more than $200,000 in donations to Governor Gretchen Whitmer, who’s responsible for appointing the state’s utility regulators. As a result, according to the workshop participants from Michigan, the company has been able to restrict the growth of residential solar, which would eat into its profits.
Mikal Goodman, a 23-year-old city councilmember from Pontiac, Michigan, told me his interest in public power stemmed from DTE’s high rates and failure to invest in modernizing its transmission system. Some of its poles and wires dated back to before World War II, he said. Last winter, storms knocked out power to hundreds of thousands of households in southeast Michigan, leaving some families in the dark for over a week. But the day after one especially bad storm in February that left 450,000 people without power, DTE’s CEO Gerardo Norcia bragged to Wall Street analysts about the company’s “strong financial results” due to budget cuts and delayed maintenance.
In Pontiac, Goodman said, outages are life-threatening. He described the city as a donut hole — a poor, majority minority community surrounded by much wealthier, whiter towns. Most Pontiac residents don’t have the resources to run backup generators, replace rotting food, or flee to hotels if they need to, like many of their well-off neighbors, he said.
The idea that energy is a human right, and should not be treated as a commodity, came up repeatedly at the workshop. Many of the participants were drawn to public power by the desire to see an energy transition that benefits everyone, not just those who can afford clean energy.
Sevier, who has done a lot of work related to decarbonizing buildings, was frustrated that other advocates in the field were ignoring the growing energy affordability crisis. One in six households are behind on their utility bills, according to the National Energy Assistance Directors Association, and gas and electric utilities are increasingly disconnecting customers that are in arrears. A January report from Bailout Watch, a nonprofit watchdog of fossil fuel companies, estimated that the 12 utilities that perpetrated the vast majority of shutoffs between 2020 and the fall of 2022 could have forgiven the debt with just 1% of their spending on shareholder dividends.
“If we require that everything in your life become electric, but at the same time, we don’t transform a system that guarantees that everyone actually can have electricity,” Sevier told me, “then I ask, who are we building this ‘electrify everything’ system for?”
Other advocates questioned a system where the public is often forced to pay for a company’s mistakes, but which the public has no say over. Travis Gibrael, an organizer with a group called Reclaim Our Power in northern California, which is working on a public takeover of PG&E, described the hypocrisy of the state’s relationship with the company. Governor Gavin Newsom’s administration helped the company emerge from bankruptcy after it was found responsible for wildfires that destroyed whole towns and killed more than 100 people. Now the company is raising rates by 13% to pay for wildfire prevention measures like burying power lines.
“They burn down the state, they kill a bunch of people. And yet all of those liabilities are just put on us, including the people who lost family members,” Gibrael told me. “It’s like, we’re already paying for the cost of the system and all the crises that are coming from it. So for us to just own it, because we’re already paying for it, makes sense.”
Reclaim Our Power has allies in the city government of San Francisco, which is in the early stages of trying to purchase the local electric grid from PG&E.
In some ways, Maine seemed to be an ideal testing ground for such sweeping reforms. Central Maine Power and Versant, the two private electric companies in Maine that would have been ousted, are consistently rated the worst for customer satisfaction in the Northeast. CMP has faced multiple investigations and fines over its billing system, customer service, and delays connecting new solar projects to the grid. Mainers additionally hate the company due to a controversial power line it is building to deliver hydropower from Canada into the U.S.
Advocates also appealed to nationalist views by highlighting the fact that both companies have “foreign owners,” and that they are funneling ratepayer dollars out of the country rather than back into Maine’s communities. (CMP is owned by Iberdrola, a Spanish company. Versant is owned by Enmax, a Canadian company owned by the city of Calgary.)
Public power advocates attributed their loss largely to the nearly $40 million the incumbent utilities spent fighting the campaign. “They outspent us 37 to one,” Lucy Hochschartner, the deputy campaign manager for Pine Tree Power, told me. “We were persuading people one by one, as they were getting absolutely inundated by messaging on the television, in their mailbox, on the radio, over digital.”
But she also said the campaign was successful in that it got a lot more people talking about the issue — it made national headlines for weeks — which could make it easier for future campaigns.
Reflecting on the loss, John Qua, a campaign manager at Lead Locally, told me it showed that running a ballot initiative is probably one of the most difficult ways to win public power. Another path is to try and win an electoral majority to enact legislation. “While it takes longer, you can cement a stronger, usually progressive majority in support,” he said.
Workshop attendees were clear-eyed about the fact that public ownership would not, in itself, be a silver bullet. They were quick to acknowledge the shortcomings of many existing public institutions, and that a publicly-owned utility will only be as strong as public participation in elections and decision making — a tall order when so few people today even understand the basics about where their energy comes from. Grace Brown, a researcher at the University of Glasgow in Scotland who studies public power movements, said it’s a much harder proposition in the U.S. than in Europe, where people are used to relying on the government for services, and socialism isn’t such a dirty word.
“That’s not just about winning votes, it’s about changing the mindset of this whole country,” she told me. “It’s trying to change these huge ideological ideas of how this country understands what the state should be and what the government should do.”
Public power isn’t the only idea out there for breaking the inertia and corporate capture of the energy system. This year, Colorado, Connecticut, and Maine passed laws that will prevent utilities from charging ratepayers for their lobbying efforts. Several states are experimenting with new, performance-based regulations, whereby utilities’ compensation is tied to specific goals, including emission reductions.
There’s also evidence that the existing channels for democratic engagement with the energy system aren’t totally broken. California and Michigan both recently made big strides on the climate and equity issues that public power advocates care about. This summer, the Golden State passed a law requiring utilities to design progressive rates tied to customers’ incomes. Michigan passed a law requiring utilities to use 100% clean energy by 2040.
The revitalized push for public power is about more than clean energy. To proponents, it’s about shaping this new, green energy system in a way that benefits a wider public. Whether or not they see more victories, the questions they are raising about who decides when and how we transition to this hypothetical clean energy future are already infiltrating the wider climate discussion. And as past public power movements, like the one in Boulder, have shown, even when the campaigns fail, the threat they pose to utilities is usually enough to get the companies to change their approach.
If there’s one thing I took away from the workshop, it’s that the movement is just getting started. Expect to see more high-profile campaigns — perhaps in San Francisco or Ann Arbor — in the coming years.