"Public power utilities are far more responsive and more in tune with their communities because we are the community," Steiger says. "We have an obligation to serve the customers."
Stephenson explains how it works in Ponca City. "The users of the utility have access on a regular basis to the policymakers, rate-setters, and decision-makers. The users elect the governing body of their utility, and as such have the ability to direct change much more readily than a large, investor-owned utility that is stockholder-driven," he says, noting that stockholders of an investor-owned utility often are not even customers of the utilities that they own.
About those costs: private power companies charge residential rates an average of approximately 14 percent higher than the public power sector, according to American Public Power Association (APPA) statistics. And it isn't just a matter of not having to pay taxes. Public power providers typically share payments-in-lieu-of-taxes and other contributions with their communities, and those average 15 percent higher than the taxes private utilities pay.
Ponca City is a small town, says David Myers, economic development executive director of the Ponca City Development Authority. And that promotes strong ties between business and local government. "As a result, we're able to be far more responsive to the needs and issues that our business community has. Our goal is to enhance an already thriving local economy, and that drives the decisions the utility makes."
Public power providers have found a wealth of ways to help their business customers thrive. Here are just a few examples:
• In sunny Florida, the municipal utility in Tallahassee offers "net metering." It's for those who have rooftop solar photovoltaic panels, and it allows these customers' electric meters to essentially spin backwards when their solar panels are producing more power than they need. That power goes back into the grid for someone else to use. The customer with the solar panels benefits from lower bills, as the utility pays full retail value for this excess power.
• The Long Island Power Authority in New York has a host of programs to help business customers, from special discounts to energy-efficiency assistance. One program targets those who seek to create energy-efficient buildings, offering up to $10,000 worth of technical assistance and incentives covering a portion of the additional design and equipment expenses that building these structures requires.
• WPPI Energy, which serves 52 customer-owned utilities in and around Wisconsin, has the answer for businesses that can't afford even the briefest power outage. An on-site backup generator provides reliable standby service without the need for major capital outlays because WPPI owns, installs, and maintains the generator. WPPI established this service because it will use the generator itself during peak energy usage times as a precaution.
• Seattle City Light's Lighting Design Lab helps businesses transform their way to more efficient lighting. It offers consultations and demonstrations, product information, a mockup facility, and a daylighting lab.
• In Eugene, Oregon, the Emerald People's Utility District goes by the tagline, "The People's Power." But the utility likes businesspeople, too, including those who bring industrial facilities to town. The utility offers incentives to encourage efficiency projects in industrial settings, among other programs.