POWERLINES

A Guide to the Power and Influence of Electric Utilities

Utilities. We all know what they are. Well, kind of.

In every city and state, utilities are some of the most powerful players around. Their names and logos are everywhere, from primetime TV commercials to sponsorship lists for summertime music festivals. We don’t have much of a choice over which utility companies we do business with, and for many of us, we don’t even really know how they work and why they are so powerful.

This primer is aimed at helping to demystify the power surrounding utilities. It sketches out the utility power structure, offers strategies for researching utility corporate power, presents case studies of utility power at the state and city levels, and profiles local movements that are leading the fightback against utility power.

We focus mostly on one kind of utility: investor-owned electric utilities.

Whether you’re interested in joining or starting a campaign or simply want to know why your local utility company seems to be everywhere you turn, this primer is for you.

UTILITY CAMPAIGN MAP

Click on a lightbulb icon in the map below to learn more about local utility campaigns happening near you.

CAMPAIGN STORIES

Now you know what electric utilities are and how they push their agenda but what can we do about it? Read these first-hand accounts from campaigners, organizers, and activists working to challenge the power of utilities where they live.

For the first time in 30 years, Commonwealth Edison’s (ComEd) contract with Chicago is up for renewal. This has provided a prime opportunity for the people to take control of our energy distribution and create a municipal utility. We know that to ensure an energy-secure future that accounts for increasing climate change effects, Chicago needs a democratically controlled municipal utility.

Allowing ComEd to continue operating in Chicago will not address the failings of our energy system. We know that the creation of a municipal utility is the only way forward. But while a democratically controlled utility is the ultimate demand, DemComEd and our coalition partners have developed a more extensive list of demands.

1. Establish a democratically elected utility board
2. Complete decarbonization of our electric supply by 2030
3. Institute progressive electric rates
4. Expand low-income assistance
5. Labor solidarity

In 2020, the grassroots organizers behind the No Pepco Pledge formed We Power DC, and launched a full-on campaign for clean public power. When the pandemic hit DC hard in 2020, We Power DC shifted their focus to residents’ more immediate needs and an urgent problem: energy justice. DC workers were laid off by the thousands, low-income residents struggled to pay their rent and surging electricity bills, and many families started racking up utility debt. Given the overwhelming issues of the current DC energy system, only exacerbated by the pandemic, We Power DC decided to tackle residents’ mounting utility debt, the looming threat of shutoffs, and an imminent electricity rate hike to ensure their neighbors had their basic needs met first. The DC Council enacted a short-term moratorium on utility shut-offs during the pandemic, but We Power DC called on councilmembers to go further. Nofamily should ever have to fear losing the power they need to heat their home or cook their meals — regardless of whether a pandemic is ongoing.

The utility systems in Michigan have enormous power over the decisions made that will impact our future and our lives. Building community power is the only way we can counter the influence of corporations on elections and the scientific community. DTE Energy is paying politicians and advocates through dark money and front groups. The barriers to access to decision-making channels are many but the stakes are high. But locking arms, and focusing on our common future is the winning strategy.

We believe that everyone deserves a warm home in the winter, a safe community, and access to the pollution-free economy of the future, now, through democratic processes. Healthy, affordable energy, and community-owned solar, address the gaps that carbon reductionists ignore — because greenhouse gas emission reduction is not enough to solve the dual problems of environmental racism and corporate extraction in the energy system. From Detroit and Highland Park to the Upper Peninsula, environmental justice communities are fighting for energy democracy and a Just Transition — shutting down pipelines and smokestacks, and fighting to keep the lights on, and the heat going in the winter. 

RESEARCH GUIDES

Ready to start mapping the power behind electric utilities? These guides will help you get started with handy walkthroughs of important research databases and methodologies.

CASE STUDIES

How does research come together to inform campaign strategy? These case studies use the resources outlined in our research guides to create a comprehensive look at the power and influence of major utilities.

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