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America's Public Power Utilities Fuel the Future

The power company - that's who sells electricity to you and your business. But there's another kind of power that America's public power utilities provide every day. It's the power to grow the community, strengthen its economy, and enhance its quality of life.

Dec/Jan 07
Communities and businesses are plugging into this other kind of power more and more every day. They're benefiting from the presence of utilities owned and operated by the communities they serve - municipal utilities as well as regional and statewide counterparts. More than 40 million Americans get their power this way, from more than 2,000 not-for-profit electric utilities.

It almost goes without saying that part of the benefit is a generally lower cost for energy. But that's just the beginning. Public power providers also boast extra-solid reliability, plus a strong commitment to community improvement and economic development. Alan Richardson, president and CEO of the American Public Power Association, alluded to this broader purpose in a recent speech: "We exist to serve the public interest, and our goal is to create a better society."

Developing Their Communities
A cornerstone for a better society is prosperity, which is why so many public power organizations are involved in economic development and business assistance. Take the Sacramento Municipal Utility District - commonly known as SMUD - as an example.

"We have a multifaceted economic development program at SMUD," says J.D. Stack, the utility's economic development program manager. "We do a bunch of different things, ranging from corporate recruitment to small-business assistance. We even do small-business loans and entrepreneurial assistance, helping people form and grow new companies."

One such program is the Grow Sacramento Fund, a business loan program. The fund's purpose is to create or retain jobs and to assist energy-related businesses. Loans are guaranteed through the U.S. Small Business Administration and are open to nearly any for-profit business, including manufacturers, retailers, and service companies. Loans range from $25,000 to $1 million.

"We are the lead contributor to a business incubator in the Sacramento area that offers a set of services to budding entrepreneurs," Stack continues. "And this year we became the lead contributor to a new program targeted at clean-energy entrepreneurs."

The CleanStart program to which he refers focuses on businesses pursuing everything from solar power to fuel cells to energy efficiency. Recently completed was the "PowerUp!" business-plan competition that awarded $50,000 in cash prizes to promising new-business proposals from an entry pool of more than 20. "Every one of those groups was matched with mentors, and they're still getting assistance from the mentors," Stack adds.

Ultimately, organizers hope to foster new locally based, high-growth companies. "California has already had a big role in incorporating new energy technologies, and because of our position as the state capital, we feel there are opportunities to build on that track record and grow clean-energy businesses," Stack explains.

Yes, SMUD does sell electricity, but powering up the local economy is all in a day's work, too, according to Stack. "Our entire economic development program is about making sure we have a vibrant and growing business community in the Sacramento region. All activities we get involved in support that."

Across the continent, the Tennessee Valley Authority is also heavily involved in economic development activities, according to its senior vice president of economic development, John Bradley. As with SMUD, economic development is woven into the fabric of the organization, which in this case was originally formed to help bring prosperity back to the Depression-ravaged Tennessee Valley. "Basically, the TVA has in its mission economic development and improving the quality of life of the people who live within the valley. We help retain and attract jobs," Bradley says.

What he oversees is "a full-service economic development organization, with a recruitment function, an existing-business function, a community-development function, and a technical-services function," he says. "We even have engineers on staff who help with such things as site-development planning."

A prominent new TVA venture into economic development is its "megasite" program, launched in 2004 to identify parcels of land that would be suitable places for automotive manufacturing operations. "We've hired a consulting firm to basically do the due diligence to prepare larger tracts for the automotive industry. It's really community preparedness," he explains.

A prominent site-search firm has been given the task of making personal visits and gathering information to evaluate 25 potential "megasites" from around the Tennessee Valley. Seven such sites have been certified thus far, including the I-40 Advantage Auto Park site in Haywood County, Tennessee; the West Tennessee Auto Park in Crockett County, Tennessee; Industrial Park South in Chattanooga, Tennessee; Lowndes County Crossroads near Columbus, Mississippi; Lowndes County-Golden Triangle, also near Columbus, Mississippi; PUL Alliance-Wellspring Project in Tupelo, Mississippi; and the Hopkinsville-Christian County-Interstate 24 megasite in Kentucky.

TVA spends a lot of time in business recruitment as well, Bradley says, focusing on a range of target industries including automotive, distribution and warehousing, food processing, cold storage, life sciences, and plastics. "We have individuals out there on a day-to-day basis selling the TVA region. They make cold calls and go to trade shows. They're truly recruiters," he notes.

The organization also pays attention to the needs of companies already operating in its territory, Bradley says. "We have a program in place calling on existing businesses day in and day out, making sure we're retaining our customers," he says. Assistance includes loan and grant programs as well as minority business development initiatives.

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