Public Power and the history of #PoweringLNK

There is a strong tradition of public power in the Cornhusker State. As the only 100% public power state in the nation, Nebraska’s commitment to community-owned energy means Nebraskans enjoy some of the lowest rates in the nation. LES has been serving our community with affordable, reliable electricity for 55 years. See how it all started below.

 

 

Part 1

SEN. GEORGE NORRIS

If you want to thank someone for ensuring electricity found its way across the country, you should thank Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Steering the U.S. out of the Great Depression, FDR expanded public works — including broader electric service — across the country during the first of his four terms as president.

But if you want to thank someone for bringing community-owned electricity to Nebraska, thank U.S. Sen. George Norris.

FIGHTING FOR PUBLIC POWER FOR 4 DECADES 

From his upbringing in McCook, Nebraska, to 40 years on Capitol Hill, Norris pioneered the charge to electrify rural areas. In the 1920s, he pushed for the Tennessee Valley Authority because it brought flood control, hydroelectric dams and inexpensive electricity to rural Tennessee.

He then lobbied for more rural areas to become electrified. Norris, making the case to his counterparts in Congress, argued farmers deserved access to electricity. 

(And growing up on a Great Plains farm without electricity, he knew firsthand the hardships it created.)

To that point, private companies refused or couldn’t meet the electric needs of rural areas.

Norris even faced opposition in Congress; pro-business senators called him a socialist for supporting the expansion of electricity to rural areas.

However, when the Rural Electrification Act passed in 1936, public power — and Nebraska’s future as one of its champions — officially began.

COMMUNITY-OWNED POWER IN THE CORNHUSKER STATE

From the top down, community-owned, not-for-profit electric service became the norm in Nebraska.

Farmers came together to create municipalities and cooperatives for their electric service. The Unicameral passed statutes organizing and establishing utilities controlled by the people they served. As a result, these public power districts slowly took over investor-owned utilities throughout the 1930s and 1940s.

Today, Nebraska stands as the only 100% public power state.

POWERED BY LOCAL PEOPLE

LES is proud to power the community with this tradition intact. LES holds onto the same principles today — low cost of service, high reliability, local control and community focused.

PUBLIC POWER WEEK

Each October, we celebrate this heritage through the American Public Power Association’s Public Power Week. It commemorates the legacy born in the 1930s that has grown Lincoln — and the 2,000 other communities across the country, including the entire state of Nebraska — through electric service powered by its very own people.

For all of that, we have George Norris to thank.

 

Part 2

In the early 1960s, before LES came to be, two rival utilities powered Lincoln: Consumers Public Power District and the City Light and Water Department.

Because they competed to serve customers, each had its own infrastructure delivering electricity to homes and businesses. That meant twice as many power lines, poles and wires than Lincoln needed if it were run by one utility.

The mess of lines cluttered Lincoln’s streets and alleyways and, along with being unsightly, led to numerous unnecessary power outages.

While public power utilities pride themselves on low rates, high reliability and efficient construction, it took a long time and hard work for Lincoln to reach these standards. 

COMMUNITY CONTROL

After years of dealing with the dueling electric providers, the City purchased the system from CPPD. On Feb. 1, 1966, Lincoln Electric System began powering Lincoln and surrounding areas as a single entity.

Area residents continued taking control of their power by voting to establish the LES Administrative Board in 1970. Local citizens, appointed by the mayor, served on the Board to ensure local peoples’ voices were heard. Just as today, each Board member was appointed to represent fellow customer-owners.

The accountability and transparency afforded by a Board of customers who live and work within the service area is a cornerstone of public power. Accountability through the accessibility of utility leadership to the customers they represent and serve — their neighbors, families and friends. Transparency through the sunshine laws that make our Board meetings and records open to those customer-owners — a far cry from the shareholder focus at privately owned utilities.

“Our shareholders are our customers,” said LES CEO Kevin Wailes. “An investor-owned utility has a different way of looking at critical issues because their priority is profit for their shareholders who are likely not their customers. Our priority is to provide our customer-shareholders the best service and the best value possible. The reality of it is local people serving local people.”

FOCUSING ON VALUE

LES has worked to diversify its power generation portfolio and find efficiencies in its local plants to maintain affordable retail electric rates and high reliability of its service.

Buying power can be volatile if a utility relies on just one fuel source, such as coal, natural gas, wind, solar, etc. That’s why LES powers Lincoln with a balanced array. The utility’s nameplate capacity is made up of 1/3 renewables, 1/3 coal and 1/3 natural gas.

A LOCALLY MINDED LEGACY

On behalf of the community, LES has operated the electric system guided by the values of safety, reliability, affordability, integrity and environmental stewardship. All of those factors help bring new economic development to our community while nurturing growth and prosperity. 

From working with local residents to bringing energy to Lincoln, LES’ public power history puts people — not profits — first.

“What’s key as a community-owned utility is that we’re matching the values of our community to the services we provide,” Wailes said. “That’s something only we can do.”