All across the US, city-owned electric companies are moving rapidly to use as much renewable power as they can. The New York Times posted an article today about Burlington, VT becoming 100% renewable.
BURLINGTON, Vt. — Vermont’s largest city has a new success to add to its list of socially conscious achievements: 100 percent of its electricity now comes from renewable sources such as wind, water and biomass.
With little fanfare, the Burlington Electric Department crossed the threshold this month with the purchase of the 7.4-megawatt Winooski 1 hydroelectric project on the Winooski River at the city’s edge.
When it did, Burlington joined the Washington Electric Co-operative, which has about 11,000 customers across central and northern Vermont, which reached 100 percent earlier this year.
“It shows that we’re able to do it, and we’re able to do it cost effectively in a way that makes Vermonters really positioned well for the future,” said Christopher Recchia, the commissioner of the Vermont Department of Public Service.
It’s part of a broader movement that includes a statewide goal of getting 90 percent of Vermont’s energy from renewable resources by 2050, including electricity, heating and transportation. Across the state, Vermonters are urging their electric utilities to provide them with renewable sources of power, and the utilities are listening, Recchia said.
The citizens of Boulder, CO are fighting to wrest control of their electrical system from Xcel Energy, because they want to invest heavily in renewable power and energy efficiency, and Xcel won’t cooperate. The main way that a city can take over a privately owned power system is to condemn the electricity infrastructure within city limits using the city’s eminent domain powers granted in state law. The city and the electric company go to court in a condemnation suit, and the court determines the value of the electric company’s property to be conveyed to the city. The city then issues bonds to finance the purchase. The bonds are paid back from customers’ electric bills. And the city is then free to make the kind of electric bill lowering investments that don’t involve fossil fueled power plants.
Here in West Virginia, cities cannot use their eminent domain power to buy out privately owned electric companies. State law specifically protects WV’s Ohio-based power companies from condemnation of their systems for public use. While the WV Legislature grants all kinds of condemnation powers to coal companies for transporting coal and electric companies that want to build high voltage transmission lines, here is what the WV Code says about city buyouts of electric companies:
PART III. RIGHT OF EMINENT DOMAIN.
§8-19-3. Right of eminent domain; limitations.
For the purpose of acquiring, constructing, establishing or extending any waterworks system or electric power system, or for the purpose of constructing any additions, betterments or improvements to any waterworks or electric power system, or for the purpose of acquiring any property necessary, appropriate, useful, convenient or incidental for or to any waterworks or electric power system, under the provisions of this article, the municipality or county commission shall have the right of eminent domain as provided in chapter fifty-four of this code: Provided, That such right of eminent domain for the acquisition of a privately owned waterworks system, or electric power system, or any part thereof, shall not be exercised without prior approval of the public service commission, and in no event shall any municipality or county commission construct, establish or extend beyond the corporate limits of said municipality or county line a municipal or county waterworks or electric power system under the provisions of this article to supply service in competition with an existing privately or municipally or county owned waterworks or electric power system in such municipality or county or within the proposed extension of such system, unless a certificate of public convenience and necessity therefor shall have been issued by the public service commission: Provided, however, That a municipality or county commission may not exercise such right of eminent domain over a privately owned electric power system or any part thereof for the purpose of acquiring, constructing, establishing or extending an electric power system.
Subject to the provisions of this article and notwithstanding the provisions of section nineteen, article twelve of this chapter to the contrary, a municipality or county commission may acquire, construct, establish, extend, equip, repair, maintain and operate, or lease to others for operation, electric generators or electric generating systems or electric transmission systems more than one mile beyond the corporate limits of such municipality or county line and said electric generation systems shall not be under the jurisdiction of the public service commission.
So if a city already owns its electrical system (in WV that means only New Martinsville and Philippi), it can use its eminent domain powers. If a city does not currently have a city owned electric utility, and wants to purchase the existing infrastructure from either AEP or FirstEnergy, the city is specifically barred from using its condemnation powers to do so. Hmmm, I wonder how that statute was “put in place?”
So while cities like Austin, TX and Burlington, VT are innovating, cutting electric bills and investing in the future, WV cities are held hostage to Ohio-based electric holding companies.