by Ethan Greenberg, ’20

Pueblo, Colorado

Interviews with stakeholders. Interviewees included city and county officials, state legislators, the incumbent utility, and citizen advocates. We also attended some city council and utility commission meetings in Pueblo. Finally, newspaper and city documents were used to complement interviews and meetings.

What is a municipal utility?
In the United States, there are three general categories of electric utilities: municipal or other forms of publicly-owned utilities (commonly called munis), private investor-owned utilities (IOUs), and cooperatives (coops) which are primarily found in rural areas. As the graphics below indicate, although the number of munis vastly outnumber IOUs, IOUs have an overwhelming hold on market share.[1] There are over 2,000 municipal electric utilities, but these munis provide electricity to around 15% of Americans. As these statistics indicate, the vast majority of munis serve 10,000 customers or fewer. In contrast, there are fewer than 200 IOUs in the United States that provide power to over 2/3 of U.S. customers[2]. Electric cooperatives provide the remaining portion.

The campaign in Pueblo is advocating for municipalization, which refers to the process of replacing utility service provided by a private, investor-owned utility with a publicly-owned, nonprofit utility.

The Politics of Electricity

Utility Count by Entity

For decades, the electricity sector in the United States was not the subject of political disputes. Both because electricity involves highly complex systems and because the regulatory bodies like public utility commissions that oversee the electric sector are staffed by sector-specific experts, the general public widely avoided interaction with electric policy decisions. In other words, the electric sector was uncontested and depoliticized. As long as the lights turned on reliably at reasonable rates, the majority of Americans were willing to outsource the decision-making of electricity issues to what are essentially long-term private contractors: investor-owned utilities (IOUs).

Utility Count by Customers Served

Climate change, along with rising rates and changing technology, alters and confounds a depoliticized, uncontested energy sector. Suddenly, a centralized, privatized hub-and-spoke model of electricity provision is not the only option. Likewise, suddenly decisions about types of generation are value-laden in the context of pressure to lower carbon outputs. The increased political pressure and contestation surrounding electricity issues are at play in Pueblo, Colorado.

The Pueblo Context
Pueblo, Colorado enjoyed healthy growth from the late 19th century through the first half of the 20th century. Between 1890 and the 1960s, it was the second-largest city in Colorado behind Denver, but has since dropped to 8th most populous.[3] It has not benefitted from the attention that has graced its northern counterparts on the Colorado Front Range. More than 24% of Puebloans are under the federal poverty line, almost twice the national average. Pueblo’s median household income, $36,280, is more than $20,000 below the national median and almost $30,000 below Colorado’s median.[4]

It was in this context that Pueblo’s incumbent investor-owned electric utility, Black Hills Energy, arrived in 2008 via their acquisition of the previous IOU. Due to a variety of factors, the utility requested and received approval from the public utility commission for a series of rate hikes. Between 2008 and 2016, the average electric utility bill increased 58%. In the midst of rate hikes, the utility also angered solar customers with a change in their solar rebate policy.

The Movement
Out of this discontent sprang a movement that initially focused on reforming the incumbent utility, but eventually shifted to a campaign for public power. The movement got its start from homeless and housing nonprofits. One nonprofit saw a three-fold increase in appeals for utility bill assistance between July 2010 and July 2011.[5]Eventually, the movement involved other stakeholders and formed a three-legged stool of low-income advocates focused on high rates and shut-off policies, climate advocates focused on renewable energies, and economic development advocates focused on retaining and attracting employment centers.

Key Findings
The Pueblo campaign for municipalization participates in trends that show energy no longer remains uncontested and depoliticized. Pueblo also aligns with trends of energy democracy. Energy democracy argues that energy transitions should not be considered solely as technical but also social and political transitions that involve governance changes. As one interviewee noted, public power “would not only get people at the table, but you would own the table.”

  • In contrast to other recent municipalization campaigns that focused almost exclusively on renewables (i.e. Boulder, CO), the Pueblo campaign has maintained its three-legged stool of low-income advocates, climate advocates, and economic development advocates. As one interviewee put it: “Energy justice has always led the way–people whose power gets cut off and the kids can’t study for school and everything in the refrigerator rots and you can’t live there so they show up at the doorstep of the homeless agency.”
  • Municipalization re-centers the city as a site for climate work. Cities have been the focus of climate change policy, but cities often face obstacles because of their lack of jurisdiction over large regulatory structures and limited impact. Municipalization remains one signature way in which the city is re-centered as the focus of those efforts.
  • A municipalization campaign can empower a community. One interviewee noted, “to have a community who didn’t think much about electricity, you turn the lights on and they come on, to becoming really the epicenter of discussions around energy in the country in myriad ways, practically overnight, that’s a pretty big deal. Pueblo should be very proud of that.” Another said, “if this happens, I think it could be a springboard to other efforts to realize we do have power.”

[1] Graphics: American Public Power Association
[2] George C. Homsy, “Capacity, sustainability, and the community benefits of municipal utility ownership in the United States” Journal of Economic Policy Reform (September 2018).
[3,4], 4 U.S. Census Bureau
[5] Peter Roper, Pueblo Chieftain, Aug 4, 2011.