Whose Grid? Our Grid! Chicago’s Campaign To Put Electricity Under Public Control

A democratically owned electric utility could fast-track the city’s transition to clean energy.

Alex Schwartz September 17, 2019

Members of Chicago Democratic Socialists of America table at the Logan Square Farmers Market on August 18. (Photo by Alex Schwartz)

This arti­cle is part of Cov­er­ing Cli­mate Now, a glob­al col­lab­o­ra­tion of more than 250 news out­lets to strength­en cov­er­age of the cli­mate sto­ry.

"You don’t want to leave something you need up to the whims of private shareholders, private investors ... things that are not accountable to the public."

CHICA­GO — Among the many ven­dors at the Logan Square Farm­ers Mar­ket on August 18 sat three young peo­ple ped­dling nei­ther organ­ic veg­eta­bles, gourmet cheese nor hand­made crafts. Instead, they offered lib­er­a­tion from capitalism.

Rep­re­sen­ta­tives of the Chica­go Demo­c­ra­t­ic Social­ists of Amer­i­ca (CDSA) engaged mar­ket­go­ers in dis­cus­sions about the cam­paigns they are involved in, from lift­ing the ban on rent con­trol to estab­lish­ing sin­gle-pay­er health­care. But one effort in par­tic­u­lar seemed to catch the most attention.

We’re try­ing to bring ComEd under munic­i­pal con­trol,” CDSA mem­ber Matthew Cason told Patrick Petranek, a Logan Square res­i­dent whose eyes lit up at the prospect of Chicago’s largest elec­tric­i­ty provider, Com­mon­wealth Edi­son, being tak­en over by the city. Petranek said he sup­ports more trans­paren­cy around fees and signed a peti­tion in sup­port of the campaign.

ComEd’s fran­chise agree­ment with Chica­go is up for rene­go­ti­a­tion at the end of 2020. The agree­ment, estab­lished in 1947, allows ComEd to access the city’s pub­lic areas to build elec­tric infra­struc­ture — and form a prac­ti­cal monop­oly over Chicago’s electricity.

Elec­tric pow­er is a crit­i­cal func­tion in every­day life, and we can’t go with­out it,” Cason tells In These Times. Yet, it’s con­trolled by a pri­vate monop­oly, and that pri­vate monop­oly is min­i­mal­ly account­able, not trans­par­ent and just is out­side of our pub­lic control.”

Cason argues that a demo­c­ra­t­i­cal­ly con­trolled util­i­ty would help Chica­go reach its goal of 100-per­cent clean and renew­able ener­gy by 2035, which City Coun­cil set in April. If the city— not a prof­it-dri­ven cor­po­ra­tion— is respon­si­ble for sourc­ing its own ener­gy, Cason says, it will make deci­sions to sat­is­fy its res­i­dents instead of investors.

CDSA launched its #Democ­ra­tize­ComEd cam­paign in June, part of a wave of munic­i­pal­iza­tion efforts heat­ing up across the coun­try. DSA and oth­er grass­roots orga­ni­za­tions are mount­ing cam­paigns from San Fran­cis­co to Maine. In July, after a heat wave forced two pow­er shut­downs in New York City, May­or Bill de Bla­sio float­ed the idea of tak­ing over ConEd, the city’s investor-owned elec­tric utility.

In late July, Chica­go alder­man and CDSA mem­ber Daniel La Spa­ta intro­duced a City Coun­cil order call­ing for a fea­si­bil­i­ty study to exam­ine the poten­tial impacts — envi­ron­men­tal, social and eco­nom­ic — of bring­ing ComEd under pub­lic con­trol. Cason expects the pro­pos­al to eas­i­ly pass through the Com­mit­tee on Envi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion and Ener­gy, after which it would be up for review by the whole Coun­cil. The study, due to come out in Decem­ber if autho­rized, would then out­line paths to municipalization.

Twen­ty-two of Chicago’s 50 alder­men have indi­cat­ed sup­port for the study so far. While a plan for Chicago’s poten­tial ComEd takeover would be detailed in the study, Cason points out that Illi­nois makes it par­tic­u­lar­ly easy for local gov­ern­ments to munic­i­pal­ize util­i­ties. One way is through a Pub­lic Util­i­ty Cer­tifi­cate, a spe­cial low-inter­est bond that enables cities to pur­chase util­i­ty assets, includ­ing equip­ment and infra­struc­ture, while pay­ing back the loan only with rev­enue gen­er­at­ed from the util­i­ty. ComEd’s assets would then be man­aged by a board of elect­ed offi­cials, rather than answer­ing to prof­it-dri­ven shareholders.

Johan­na Bozuwa, co-man­ag­er of the cli­mate and ener­gy pro­gram at The Democ­ra­cy Col­lab­o­ra­tive and an advo­cate for munic­i­pal­iza­tion, allows that pub­licly owned util­i­ties have [not] always been per­fect” — for instance, poor pow­er infra­struc­ture will cause black­outs regard­less of who owns the util­i­ty. But, she adds, democ­ra­tiz­ing util­i­ties cre­ates many more levers in order to enact change in a way that we can’t do in a cor­po­rate monop­oly enti­ty.” Pub­lic util­i­ties can pri­or­i­tize com­mu­ni­ty over prof­it, she says. We have agency in a way that we may not otherwise.”

Burling­ton, Vt., for instance, used its pub­lic pow­er grid to become the first U.S. city to be pow­ered by 100% renew­able ener­gy. Red-state Nebras­ka is cur­rent­ly the only U.S. state with a com­plete­ly pub­licly owned pow­er sys­tem — and has been since the 1940s, when pri­vate util­i­ties thought pow­er­ing rur­al areas was too expen­sive. Today, Nebras­ka res­i­dents pay some of the low­est elec­tric rates in the country.

Chica­go Alder­man Car­los Ramirez-Rosa, also a CDSA mem­ber, made a case for munic­i­pal­iza­tion on the pub­lic TV show Chica­go Tonight in ear­ly July, not­ing there is local prece­dent: In 1947, Chica­go took own­er­ship of the pri­vate train lines that made up its famous L” mass tran­sit sys­tem, democ­ra­tiz­ing pub­lic transit.

We want to make sure we’re push­ing for­ward the social­ist cause,” Ramirez-Rosa said. In addi­tion to tabling at the farm­ers mar­ket, CDSA is can­vass­ing neigh­bor­hoods and talk­ing to City Coun­cil mem­bers to gen­er­ate sup­port for munic­i­pal­iza­tion. Cason says talk­ing to Chicagoans about the effort has been sur­pris­ing­ly easy. Every­one knows what ComEd is,” Cason says. Every­one knows what elec­tric­i­ty is. Every­one has a pow­er bill.”

But what most speaks to peo­ple he can­vass­es, Cason says, is the prin­ci­ple of hav­ing a basic neces­si­ty man­aged by an enti­ty behold­en to Chica­go res­i­dents, rather than profit.

We believe that crit­i­cal pub­lic and social func­tions should be under pub­lic con­trol,” he tells In These Times. You don’t want to leave some­thing you need up to the whims of pri­vate share­hold­ers, pri­vate investors … things that are not account­able to the public.”

Alex Schwartz is a 2019 edi­to­r­i­al intern for In These Times.
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