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Power to the People: How Utilities Board Members Make a Difference in the Fight Against Climate Change

April 02, 2024

Authored by Allison Fabrizio and Berna Idriz

This Earth Month, there will be a fight for our planet at the polls, but there's something on the ballot that's more impactful than you might think - your utility board. While many of us are interested and invested in the outcome of national elections, it is crucial to recognize the profound impact we can have in often overlooked local elections. The media may focus on presidential races, but the decisions made in local elections directly and immediately influence our communities. A crucial local election that we should never neglect is the selection of individuals who will serve on our public service commissions, or more specifically, our utilities board. In 10 states, members of our utilities board members are elected, while the remaining 40 are appointed (in all but 2 states, this power is held by the Governor). In the United States, each board varies based on the community it serves, commonly playing a pivotal role in overseeing vital services, including water, electricity, gas, and others; forming the backbone of our community.

Understanding Utilities Boards

Participating in your utility board elections can catalyze positive change in your community. Elected board members play a key role in decisions that affect the management and improvement of your utility services, from maintaining high standards to determining fair and reasonable pricing.

Utilities and our ability to fight climate change go hand in hand. Utility boards influence environmental policies related to services like energy production, allowing you to participate in elections that directly impact sustainable and eco-friendly initiatives. Additionally, board members contribute to emergency preparedness, ensuring our community is prepared to handle unexpected events and natural disasters. According to S&P Global, utilities “face the highest combined physical risk from climate hazards like water stress, storms, and wildfires... utilities’ vulnerability to physical climate risks generally tops other capital-intensive sectors.” Over a 20-year period, a standard utility experienced storm-related costs and lost revenues totaling $1.4 billion due to outages caused by storms. In 2021, Texas was unprepared for a winter storm, resulting in power outages for over 4.5 million customers and over 150 fatalities. Estimates from the Fourth National Climate Assessment note that the cost of damages and lost revenues is projected to increase by 23% ($300 million) by 2050, causing $1.7 billion in economic damage for each utility. Since climate change exacerbates the frequency and severity of climate disasters, our utility boards must ensure that our resources are resilient and sustainable. This involves implementing measures to adapt to the changing climate patterns, investing in renewable energy sources, and fostering community awareness and preparedness. By participating in elections for your utilities board, you contribute to inclusive decision-making, fostering transparency, accountability, and the overall well-being of your local area.

Utilities in the 21st Century: Inflation Reduction Act 

To adapt to the requirements of the 21st century, our utilities must undergo a transformation that effectively tackles the challenges and takes advantage of new opportunities presented. This transformation should leverage the extensive innovation and infrastructure at our disposal. With the passing of the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), federal funding is now available more than ever to further accelerate renewable energy production and efficiency for our utilities. This will not only help us reach global greenhouse gas reduction targets, but will positively affect all of our communities, making renewable energy sources more affordable, enhancing our energy systems' resiliency, and mitigating liabilities. 

By actively spearheading the development of renewable energy, we accelerate our ability to harness the advantages, including lower electricity bills and stabilized energy costs. These efforts contribute significantly to cultivating a more equitable and affordable electricity within our communities.

We have unrealized power in local elections, particularly in selecting individuals for our utility boards. These boards play a pivotal role in managing our vital services and influencing environmental policies, which is crucial to adapt to and curtail the effects of climate change. By participating in these elections, we contribute to resilient and sustainable resource management, normalizing a commitment to environmental sustainability and inclusive decision-making. The 21st-century transformation of utilities, opens doors for accelerated renewable energy development, ultimately leading to reduced costs and fostering more rapid and affordable electrification within our communities. As we enter this election year, let’s not underestimate the significance of seemingly inconspicuous ballot items—they may be key in securing a more sustainable future for generations to come. 

Check out what elections are happening in your area here and make a plan to vote

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