A year and a half ago when I started Quaker Voluntary Service and my position at Massachusetts Climate Action Network, I had no idea what a Municipal Light Plant was. Now they have become my “life’s work” or at least make up the majority of my very short career. This was one major gift of QVS and the organizations it works with.
Since my organization is so tiny, the amount of capacity that a QVS Fellow adds is enormous, as is the level of responsibility. The director in particular offered me a high level of trust, autonomy, and mentorship as she stretched the organization towards ambitious goals. All of this combined is what enabled me to become the primary researcher and coordinator of our Municipal Light Plant Report Card.
Over the last seven months following my program year with QVS, I’ve been focused on researching obscure electric utilities called “Municipal Light Plants” or MLPs for short. These are owned by town and city governments instead of investors on WallStreet. In Massachusetts, there are 41 MSPs that serve fifty towns, but they also exist in every state in the U.S. On January 29th, our organization released the 42 page report, which offers a comparative analysis of Massachusetts Municipal Light Plants’ Clean Energy and Climate Action Performance.
A comprehensive report like this had never been done before in Massachusetts. These MLP utilities have a good reputation to their customers and lawmakers because they provide cheap, reliable electricity and are responsive to outages. However, they have mostly stayed under the radar when it comes to addressing climate change at both the state level and by many local residents. A few of the towns have dedicated teams of activists who have been pushing for better clean energy policy locally for about ten years, and it took about that long for them to get comprehensive planning and change done.
I could go on and on to talk all about the report, but it feels important to share that I have been able to connect this work to something broader for me. What I’ve observed is that we, at MCAN, must strategically focus our time and resources on climate research rather than multi-issue good governance or corruption monitoring. And these issues compel me towards further study in graduate school for urban planning.
In graduate school, I want to explore the concept of local democracy and energy democracy. Energy democracy has become popular in the climate justice movement as an alternative to the capitalist order that has contributed to fossil fuel’s strangle–hold on our economy in the U.S. However, I have become disheartened because these municipal light plants — which are the theoretical energy democracy we have in Massachusetts (other states also have rural electric cooperatives) — have strayed far from their original democratic model and could not rightfully be called democratic at this moment in time. I even talked to an industry person who said he hated democracy.
What would Municipal Light Plants look like if they were truly democratic? What are the bottlenecks that could be addressed to become closer to that vision?
So, climate activism in these towns is dependent on creating a democratic process where the elected boards and appointed managers are actually accountable to what their customers want and to the needs and goals of the rest of the Commonwealth. My questions these days center around: What would Municipal Light Plants look like if they were truly democratic? What has been getting in the way of that? What are the bottlenecks that could be addressed to become closer to that vision? All while realizing that until the structures of white supremacy and capitalism are dismantled, true democracy will likely not surface in these towns. As leaders in the Massachusetts climate justice movement often say, no one in the U.S. has ever lived in a democracy, so we don’t actually know what it would feel like. But, I believe it is still something worth striving for, and the people’s assemblies of groups like Cooperation Jackson and the Boston Ujima Project are great models with which to start.
You can read the full report here, and read the latest press at:
- Mass. climate group says municipal utilities moving too slow on clean power
- Climate Action column: Does a trade association really run local electric departments?
Report and post written by Oriana Reilly, 2017-2018 QVS Boston Fellow
Oriana Reilly attended Pittsburgh Friends meeting as a youth, then went to Scattergood Friends School, a Quaker boarding school in Iowa. She also went to the Friends General Conference gathering for four years during high school. Scattergood and FGC were her first introduction to intentional community. At the New College of Florida, Oriana´s favorite two classes were “Sustainable Cities” and “Work Organization and its Alternatives” because they academically discussed the ways of life Oriana is hoping to pursue in order to build a better world. In college, Oriana majored in Anthropology and was the community events coordinator of the environmental club, a peer mentor for incoming freshmen’s first semester, and did an ethnographic study of an arts non-profit in Pittsburgh for her thesis. Oriana served at Massachusettes Climate Action Network, where she was hired on after her service year. She also spends time volunteering with and supporting the Boston Ujima Project.