POWER-GRID RESILIENCEFrustrated by Outdated Grids, Consumers Are Lobbying for Control of Their Electricity

By Emma Foehringer Merchant

Published 1 June 2023

Climate change is spurring interest in remaking local infrastructure to accommodate renewable energy, minimize power failures, and expand consumer choice.

Clyde, Ohio, with a population of around 6,000, has two electric grids. One is owned by the city. The other, now serving just a handful of customers, is controlled by a subsidiary of a utility that provides electricity to 6 million customers across five states. When Clyde residents voted to localize their electricity in the 1980s, buying the existing grid was exceedingly expensive, so they built their own. 

Clyde made the switch because of money. At the time, the city manager thought the town was paying too much, and a study commissioned by the City Council confirmed that a locally run electric system would save residents and local businesses $62 million over the next decade. When electricity began flowing through the new lines, customers of the new utility paid 25 percent less than they had to the legacy provider. 

Decades later, a number of localities in the United States are seeking to take control of or reimagine their electric infrastructure for a different reason: climate change, and the slow pace at which the existing system has adapted to it. From Ann Arbor, Michigan, to Augusta, Maine, consumers, governments and clean energy advocates are lobbying to form local utilities that they say would make grids more resilient amid severe weather, speed the deployment of clean energy, and offer customers more choice.

“The increasing impacts from climate change—the extreme weather events we’re experiencing, are laying bare how vulnerable our existing infrastructure is and how it’s just not working,” said Missy Stults, sustainability and innovations director for the city of Ann Arbor, which is considering a range of options for reworking its grid.

 “We need to think about our electric system a little bit differently right now, and we can,” she said. “What a gift: With technology, we can actually think about a different system.” 

In 2019, Ann Arbor’s City Council passed a “climate emergency” ordinance and set a target of making the town reliant on renewable energy for 100 percent of its electricity by 2030. That goal puts a greater focus on the electrons traveling on the grid than on who owns it, but some residents argue that local control could help advance the clean energy transition. Equally important is dealing with weather-related outages: Winter storms in February encrusted power lines and poles with ice and at one point left 40 percent of customers in Ann Arbor without electricity.