Around a dozen communities across the country have launched campaigns to get rid of their investor-owned electric utilities — the for-profit companies that distribute electricity to three-quarters of U.S. households — and replace them with publicly owned ones. Calling their goal “public power,” advocates argue that existing utilities have saddled customers with high rates and frequent outages, while lobbying to delay rooftop solar and other climate policies. Advocates say local ownership of the power grid would lead to lower electric bills, a quicker transition to renewables, and greater accountability to customers.
Like many utilities, Southern Company, the second-largest gas and electric company in the United States, has a “net zero” climate pledge. A page on its website features gleaming solar panels pointing toward a blue sky, where the utility acknowledges the importance of the Paris Agreement. “Key to Southern Company’s environmental initiatives,” the company offers, “is a net-zero transition focusing on greenhouse gas emissions reductions, decarbonization, and a Just Transition.” Apparently, Southern Company’s green energy keywords haven’t translated into actual policy. All the company’s subsidiaries—Alabama Power, Georgia Power, and Mississippi Power, which together serve 9 million customers— get an F on a national report card.
Science historians Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway, authors of the classic 2010 book Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming, have released a new book placing that doubt machine into a longer arc of U.S. business and political history. The Big Myth: How American Business Taught Us to Loathe Government and Love the Free Market explores an even more ambitious history dating from the dawn of the 20th century to the present day. The book documents how today’s prevailing anti-regulatory and anti-government postures that deride Big Government and cheer for Big Business did not arise simply from grassroots demands.
If companies make investments in old and dangerous technology, jeopardize public safety, jack up prices, pay executives outrageous salaries, pass all those costs on to customers and then deny some folks their product, you would think those companies go out of business. Not so with corporate utilities, who deal in the life-and-death provision of electricity and essentially hold consumers hostage to dirty power and high rates. A recent report we authored, “Powerless in the United States,” exposes the utility industry profiteering that we found has deprived households of power more than 5.7 million times since 2020 while returning billions of dollars to shareholders and executives. Utilities’ dangerous, short-sighted overinvestments in fossil-fuel infrastructure are driving fossil fuel price volatility and perpetuating the shutoffs crisis. And it’s all happening in the midst of catastrophic climate change that’s upending communities across the country with deadly blizzards, floods, fires and heatwaves.
The report shows that utilities wielded political power to secure beneficial tax-code changes in the CARES Act but defied calls to grant their own customers temporary relief. Instead, 16 utilities suspended or canceled electric service to nearly 1 million households between February 2020 and June 2021, leaving people without hot water, refrigeration, air conditioning and medical devices.
Anton Flores thought it would be simple to help someone get their water turned back on. "I had a single mom, who was undocumentable, whose utilities had been cut off, and she came to me," Flores, an immigration activist in the small Georgia city of LaGrange, said. He helped new immigrants navigate unfamiliar systems frequently. He figured all they had to do was come up with the money—so they did. Together, they went down to the municipal utility office. But it turned out, getting utilities turned on in LaGrange was a lot more complicated than having the money to pay. In fact, for the undocumented woman in question, it was impossible: with no social security number, the municipal clerk denied her request.
The first thing Deborah Bell-Holt does each morning is check whether water still flows from her bathroom faucet. It always does, thanks to an April executive order from Gov. Gavin Newsom banning water disconnections during the pandemic. But that didn’t stop her utility debt from snowballing to nearly $15,000. “They say you’re safe,” said the 67-year-old retired nurse, who manages finances for her household of twelve in South Los Angeles. “But you see that bill. How is that supposed to make you feel? You’re scared to death.” At least 1.6 million California households, or one in eight, have water debt.
SANTA ROSA, Calif.—“We’ve been evacuated twice in the past five years,” J.D. Opperman tells a small crowd of around 30 who had gathered to protest Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E) in downtown Santa Rosa on Nov. 16, 2019. Among the protesters were members of the Marin, North Bay and East Bay chapters of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). They held handmade signs reading “PG&E: The ultimate homewrecker” and “PG&E: Poster child for the corporate death penalty.”
Stacey Milbern didn't lose power during the recent blackouts, but if she had, things could have gotten dicey fast. Milbern, whose East Oakland apartment was just outside PG&E's public safety power shutoff zone, has muscular dystrophy and uses a ventilator to breathe. For her and other members of the disability community — many of whom depend on electrical devices like ventilators, CPAP machines and wheelchairs — losing power signifies much more than just an inconvenience: It can be life-threatening.
Right now, thousands of Californians are fleeing raging wildfires, while millions sit in the dark. And for-profit utilities may be to blame. Pacific Gas & Electric — a private, for-profit utility in the state — has admitted that its equipment likely caused 10 wildfires this year alone. To avoid further damage, the utility has been shutting off its customers’ power when weather conditions cause increased fire danger. Will this lower the risk of wildfires? Maybe. It will also leave blacked out hospitals choosing whether to refrigerate their vaccines or keep their medical records online.
State utility regulators on Wednesday reduced a proposed rate increase that would have affected 591,000 Duke Energy customers in the Upstate, and called executives of the energy company "tone deaf" for the proposal. Duke Energy requested last year to increase its Residential Basic Facilities Rate charge from $8.29 to $28, a spike that annually would've resulted in $236.52 more per customer in energy costs.The company later agreed to lower the charge to either $11.70 or $13.09. The Public Service Commission is expected to announce a final decision on the rate increase in coming weeks.
Brushing aside pleas from coal-friendly politicians, Tennessee Valley Authority's board voted Thursday to retire a 49-year-old coal-fired power plant in Kentucky. President Donald Trump and the state's top elected officials had fought to keep it open, even though TVA concluded it would be too expensive to do so. In the past week, Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin and Sen. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell had argued in media postings and at a rally that burning coal at the Paradise power plant was essential to their state's economy and to national security. Trump weighed in on Twitter, saying "coal is an important part of our electricity generation mix."
Highland Park, Mich., is a small, majority-black community of three square miles, nestled in the center of Detroit, with some of the highest poverty and unemployment rates in the country. It’s suffered a series of indignities and setbacks over the years: a state emergency management takeover of the city and surrounding areas; a state takeover of the public water infrastructure; public school closures; and a collapse of tax revenue fueled by white flight, fossil-fuel-driven suburban development, and the rapid decline of the housing market and auto industries.
California’s large investor-owned utility, Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E), announced it would be filing for bankruptcy by the end of the month after being faced with $30 billion in damages related to a series of fires over the past two years, including last fall’s deadly Camp Fire, which was allegedly sparked by the utility’s old, faulty transmission lines. That fire killed 86 people, destroyed 14,000 homes in the town of Paradise, and stands as the deadliest and most destructive fire in the state’s history. PG&E’s bankruptcy forces a critical choice for new California Gov. Gavin Newsom and other state leaders. They could opt to bail out PG&E, or break up the gargantuan company into presumably more manageable pieces.