Municipal Utilities & Local Elections: Internship Takeaway

By Bradley Snyder, Intern
September, 2022

Similar to energy itself, the landscape of public power in the United States is incredibly dynamic and non-uniform. The substantial variety and volume of different models of public power quickly become apparent when working in the realm of municipal utilities. "Munis" for short, these utilities are owned and managed by local communities. In contrast to investor-owned utilities (IOUs), Munis are not bound by profit maximization and in theory, seek to meet the people's electricity needs by harnessing the power of democracy and community oversight.

Numerous communities across the United States are currently well-positioned to benefit significantly from the green energy revolution, combating climate change and lowering energy costs. Given their reliance on public support, Munis are uniquely situated to respond to constituents' demands for renewable energy if organized appropriately. However, efforts to utilize civic engagement on a hyperlocal level to promote this transformation are not immune to the characteristic challenges of democratic change. Positions of power within Munis are often subject to racial underrepresentation as well as structural barriers to electing members who can earnestly represent the community's interests.

For many city councils, mayoral offices, and utility boards/commissions, people of color are underrepresented compared to the community served. While a lack of representation in positions of power is far from unique to public power, the consequences of this reality should not be overlooked. Elected officials who make up these governing bodies play a decisive role in determining the future of our climate and the price of energy. Communities of color are often most vulnerable to the devastating effects of climate change and burdensome high energy costs. By transitioning away from dirty fossil fuels, renewable energy has the potential to provide these overlooked communities with good-paying jobs while mending the generational burdens of toxic fossil fuel pollution. Therefore, championing people of color for these elected seats should be a priority for any organization fighting for climate solutions.

In addition to racial underrepresentation, affluent and educated community members often dominate energy governance. While wealth and educational attainment are not directly opposed to green energy, the pervasive underrepresentation of working-class community members puts their interests at the risk of being overshadowed by a well-resourced minority. Being an elected official for a local government is typically a part-time and not well-compensated responsibility. Accordingly, the prospect of serving on the city council, for example, is generally out of the question for many working-class citizens. Furthermore, many people who do not occupy elite spaces within their communities lack the institutional knowledge to run a successful campaign. Despite these structural barriers, it is essential for their voices to be represented within these decision-making bodies. Thus, Climate Cabinet's support for candidates who do not already possess institutional knowledge and/or immense resources is crucial for building governing bodies representing working-class interests.

Work like Climate Cabinet’s which helps candidates champion climate action across the country, including in positions of power like Municipal utility boards and city councils, is necessary for the United States to meet its ambitious energy goals to ensure a viable future. By conducting detailed research on candidates running for these key local seats, our organization is equipped to identify key opportunities to support climate champions from diverse backgrounds at the state and local levels. By campaigning and winning on climate policy, these champions are committed to putting their community's interests first.

Return to the Climate Cabinet blog.