According to the American Public Power Association (APPA), more than 2000 cities and towns in the United States run on “public” power — electricity that comes from a community owned and operated utility. Of the nation's 2011 public power systems, 1400 serve communities with populations of 10,000 or fewer. Unlike private power companies, public power utilities are public service institutions and do not serve stockholders. Instead, their mission is to serve their customers. Over the years, public power has shown that its not-for-profit mission, combined with grassroots ingenuity, local control and community support, creates an environment conducive to energy innovation.
With smaller geographic territories and a more uniform customer base, municipal and cooperative electric service providers are finding solutions that can be tailored to more closely match the needs of their users. The smaller utilities also have a shorter chain of command that enables them to speed up the investigation, implementation and rollout phases of new technologies, which inspires vendors to invest considerable time and energy in the development of new tools. They also have the unique opportunity to share information and technology among themselves, which adds to their capability and flexibility to respond and adapt to changes in the marketplace, especially from the customer and regulatory standpoint. These are the main advantages both city and rural electric utilities bring to the table.
Under the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA), cooperatives add yet another dimension: the shear volume of numbers. NRECA's more than 900 member utilities, serving more than 39 million people, work closely together for the common good. As public entities, all cost and time savings generated are passed on to the end user.
Both city and cooperative service providers have the freedom to seek out technologies that apply directly to their needs. So, a distribution utility can target advances in distribution-related software, for example. This improves and focuses their time spent on the learning and training curve, which can dramatically shorten implementation.
The more competitive and saturated the market becomes with technology and vendors, such as in the case of automated meter reading, the higher the number of smaller enterprises that are willing to buy in. When a product needs to be “road tested” insitu, smaller entities means smaller bucks going in to achieve the same results, making it even more worthwhile for vendors to stay close. All in all, the end user continues to be the winner and the beneficiary of technological innovations at the sharp end.
As governments and consumers demand changes in the way electric power is produced and managed, municipal and cooperative utilities, through their ability to adapt quickly, efficiently and cost-effectively, continue to rise to the challenges with new and innovative methods. The technology and incentives to save energy are rapidly coming on stream in the shape of smart meters, which many municipal utilities are currently installing. As pollution-producing and resource-depleting methods are being gradually phased out, sources of green power are being embraced across North America, with nearly two-thirds of all municipals and cooperatives making serious strides to ensure sustainable development to meet the needs of people today without hurting the ability to meet the demands of future generations.
No matter how you slice it, customers of the smaller, community-based electric utilities continue to come out on top.