Why should we municipalize?

What are the benefits of having a publicly owned utility?

After we have a public utility, where would we get our energy?

Doesn’t the Dillon Rule prevent us from municipalizing?

What does municipalization entail? What are the steps?

How much would a feasibility study cost?

How much would municipalization itself cost?

How would we pay for the cost of municipalization?

Are there any existing publicly owned utilities in Virginia?

Has any other county or municipality done this before?

Why should I trust Arlington County government to run an electric utility?

Q: Why should we municipalize?

A: Municipalization would provide us with full local control of our energy decision-making and allow us to establish an energy utility for the 21st century that creates and orchestrates a distributed energy system powered entirely by renewables, efficiency, and battery storage. It would make it easier to meet our emission reduction goals, provide us energy independence, and increase energy security and reliability. Right now our energy system is controlled by a investor-owned utility (Dominion) that makes decisions based on what will provide the highest returns to its absentee investors. Dominion has used its state-enforced monopoly to reap excess profits that it then uses to influence our legislature through campaign contributions (a bipartisan problem and one that is not unique to Dominion and Virginia). As a result, there are serious restrictions on customer-generated energy.

A new public utility could be designed to operate along the lines of the B Corporation electric utility Green Mountain Power in Vermont, whereby it would operate less as a producer of energy and more as a distributor. The public utility could also help facilitate the mass transition to electric vehicles by purchasing and retaining ownership of the car’s battery (which accounts for 35-45% of the vehicle’s cost) and by setting up free charging stations throughout its coverage area. Intelligent integration of EV batteries into the power system could have enormous benefits. In addition, the use of on-bill (inclusive) financing for energy efficiency upgrades and solar panel installation and implementation of aggregate and virtual net metering in multi-unit buildings would ensure that everyone – rich and poor, owners and renters – benefits from the energy transition, while also generating tons of new (unionized) jobs. It is important to emphasize that, having a public utility would dismantle Dominion’s state-backed production and distribution monopoly, which would in turn empower individual Arlington neighborhoods to create cooperative renewable energy microgrids that could provide members with some modest returns on collective investments. Lastly, this new utility could potentially utilize the fiber it would have to lay for a smart grid to begin offering high-speed, low-cost telecommunications services for Arlington residents and businesses, which could help bridge the digital divide.

For more info see:

  1. Beyond Utility 2.0 to Energy Democracy from Institute for Local Self-Reliance;
  2. Democratizing the Electricity System – A Vision for the 21st Century Grid from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance;
  3. Local Power for Decorah, Iowa by John Farrell, ILSR 
  4. Public Ownership for Energy Democracy by Johanna Bozuwa 
  5. Benefits of Public Power by the American Public Power Association

Q: What are the benefits of having a publicly owned utility?

A: The benefits of having a public owned energy utility are manifold and include:

  • Local control (transparency and accountability)
  • Public revenue
  • Reliable customer service
  • Faster outage restoration
  • Lower rates
  • Local jobs and economic development
  • Inclusive financing of energy efficiency upgrades and solar installation
  • Community solar projects
  • Undergrounding power lines

For more information see:

  1. Benefits of Public Power by the American Public Power Association
  2. Public Ownership for Energy Democracy by Johanna Bozuwa
  3. Local Power for Decorah, Iowa by John Farrell, ILSR 
  4. Inclusive Financing for Efficiency and Renewable Energy by John Farrell, ILSR

Q: After we have a public utility, where would we get our energy?

A: Arlington would not necessarily have to build its own power plants. As an independent utility it would have the ability to buy energy wholesale from a variety of producers. Most public power utilities are actually distribution-only, meaning they do not own and operate their own power plants and bulk transmission. Instead, these utilities purchase power and transmission services at wholesale to distribute to their customers. Many distribution-only utilities purchase power and transmission from joint action agencies. In the short-run, the goal would be to reduce costs through wholesale purchase while the publicly owned utility seeks to move the community to a decentralized, distributed energy system based on efficiency, renewables, and storage.

For more information, see:

  1. “What is Public Power?” from the American Public Power Association

Q: Doesn’t the Dillon Rule prevent us from municipalizing?

A: No. The Dillon Rule is a judicial philosophy that believes that local governments derive all rights from the state government and have no rights that are not explicitly granted in the state code. Virginia is such a state. However, the VA Code (§ 15.2-2109(A)) explicitly states that a locality may take over facilities of an existing utility if authorized by a majority of voters in a referendum.

For more information see:
1. Survey of State Municipalization Laws from the American Public Power Association


Q: What does municipalization entail? What are the steps?

A: The first step is for the Arlington County Board to commission a number of studies which may be done together or separately: a feasibility study, a legal analysis, and a valuation study. If the feasibility study returns a positive result, the County would then need to commission a valuation study to determine how much the grid is worth (two independent valuation studies may need to be conducted in order to strengthen the County’s case for whatever offer it makes Dominion). If the County Board decides to move forward on municipalizing its energy system, and Dominion does not want to sell, it would then have to hold a referendum. If a simple majority vote in favor of that referendum, the County can enter into negotiations with the State Corporation Commission (SCC) on obtaining the utility. Arlington County would then need to issue a combination of general obligation and electric revenue bonds to purchase the system and begin operations.

For more info see:

  1. Forming a Public Power Utility from the American Public Power Association
  2. Survey of State Municipalization Laws from the American Public Power Association
  3. Municipalization of Electricity: The Allure of Lower Rates for Bright Lights in Big Cities

Q: How much would a feasibility study cost?

A: Two studies would most likely be needed. First, a Preliminary Study would examine the big issues and determine whether it is worth pursuing any further and would cost around $5,000. If the results of the Preliminary Study are positive, the second phase would be a Detailed Study. The cost of a Detailed Study will vary with the size and circumstances of the city and averages around $200,000.


Q: How much would municipalization itself cost?

A: The ultimate cost of municipalization will be decided through a combination of valuation studies, negotiations with Dominion, and SCC judgments. To be sure, it does take the commitment of considerable funds to obtain the utility and begin operations; however, the potential payback in terms of revenue, independence, and climate change mitigation make the cost more than worthwhile.


Q: How would we pay for the cost of municipalization?

A: The initial purchase of the electric distribution system could be done by issuing a general obligation bond. Electric revenue bonds would be issued to finance initial operations.

For more info see:

  1. Forming a Public Power Utility from the American Public Power Association

Q: Are there any existing publicly owned utilities in Virginia?

A: Yes, there are sixteen:

  • City of Bedford
  • Town of Blackstone
  • City of Bristol
  • Town of Culpeper
  • City of Danville
  • Town of Elkton
  • City of Franklin
  • Town of Front Royal
  • Harrisonburg Electric Commission
  • City of Manassas
  • City of Martinsville
  • City of Radford
  • Town of Richlands
  • City of Salem
  • Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University
  • Town of Wakefield

There is a trade association for Virginia’s public power utilities called the Municipal Electric Power Association of Virginia (MEPAV).

Q: Has any other county or municipality done this before?

A: In the mid to late 1990s, the City of Falls Church asked Virginia Electric and Power Co (now Dominion) to underground all the power lines in the city’s downtown. Virginia Electric refused. The CFC council then began to explore a “municipalization light” plan whereby it would purchasing a minimum amount of facilities from the utility and soliciting bids for power supplies outside the local system. Eventually Virginia Electric agreed to underground the power lines in the downtown and Falls Church abandoned the municipalization process.

Q: Why should I trust Arlington County government to run an electric utility?

A: An Arlington public electric utility would not be run by county board members. Day to day operations of the utility would be managed by experienced professionals (we hardly think Arlington would have trouble attracting them). We believe that the formation of a new public utility would have to be accompanied by a charter that incorporates best practices in municipal owned enterprise management. Nevertheless, existing public utilities in Virginia are certainly more transparent and accountable than investor-owned behemoths like Dominion. We would prefer that the governing board would be diverse in terms of class, race, ableness, and gender and include a mix of customers, utility employees, and Arlington officials. It is also possible that the community could consider making the utility into a multi-stakeholder cooperative owned by the customers, workers, and the county government.

For more info see:

1. Energy democracy: taking back power by Johanna Bozuwa
2. Constructing the Democratic Public Enterprise by Thomas Hanna and Andrew Cumbers
3. Solidarity as a Business Model: A Multi-Stakeholder Cooperatives Manual by the Cooperative Development Center