Many people think of public power as being something that you “flip the switch” on and the lights are then supposed to turn on.
However, public power is a lot more than that. Here in rural Nevada, while services and programs may vary by utility and community, the benefits of public power cannot be denied.
Surprisingly, there are a lot of consumer-owned power utilities in the western states. Oregon, for example, has 36 of them, serving about 1.1 million customers.
Dave Luttrell, the general manager of Lincoln County Power District No. 1 in Pioche, said Nevada has about 11 such utilities, serving about 60,000 customers.
With public-run utilities, customers have local control through local elections of boards and commissions, as well as participation in public meetings.
Owned by the customers, the utilities exist to provide a service, not to make a profit for stockholders. They are also subject to open meeting and health records laws, providing transparency and scrutiny.
Public power is nearly all carbon-free, being generated primarily from hydroelectric dams like Hoover Dam (Colorado River System), and the Bonneville Power Administration, including the Snake and Columbia Rivers.
Luttrell said that by looking at a map of where public power rural utilities are in Nevada, it’s possible to see that, “We basically are along the northern border starting on the California side and on eastward, involving Harney Rural Electric, Raft River Electric, and Wells Rural Electric. Then down along the eastern part of the state, the Nevada-Utah border with Lincoln County Power, as well as White Pine, Mt. Wheeler, Overton, and Alamo Power.”
Before mandates on energy-efficient standards and investor-owned utility contributions to conservation, public power was at the front of the line, leading the way, with an understanding of what was needed for the local utility customers. For over 40 years, public utilities have helped customers conserve energy. Advertising campaigns have promoted the idea for decades. “Like our solar programs,” Luttrell said. “Nobody had to tell us to install some solar. We looked at what we needed to do and pursued that, to do what is right for our people who govern us.”
He said, “Big private power companies like NV Energy are not likely to invest in energy efficiency unless there is a reason for it, i.e., selling energy and building assets for their shareholders.”
He noted, “The utilities that serve the metro areas and the utilities that serve the rural areas are fundamentally different and operate completely different.”
Depending on the program, some consumer-owned utilities provide grants, rebates, zero-or low-interest loans, and other incentive programs.
There are other very useful benefits to public utilities as well. One is that the employees and the governing body are local people. You may know many of them. That means response time to an emergency can be swift and crews don’t have to drive in from distant locations. But Luttrell does admit that very remote communities in some states are the exception.
In addition, Luttrell noted, public utilities address a level of accountability. “When your customers are your family, friends, and neighbors, you want to give them your very best.”
Public utility districts and co-ops also build relationships with other local agencies which can help provide faster service, focused on emergencies of a specific nature.
Consumer-owned utilities contribute a higher percentage of revenues to public purposes than what is required by law. This is helpful in further building public relations, trust, and confidence.
Studies have shown that, on average nationwide, public power puts 33 percent more into its communities than private utilities.
As has been said, “Community connection and stewardship is the greatest benefit of public power.”