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July 5, 2019

Celebrating 125 Years of Community-Owned Electricity

by Girish Balachandran, General Manager, Alameda Municipal Power

There’s a book that sits on my desk titled Municipal Electric Light Plant, Alameda, California, Cash Book, 1908-1909. Every so often, I like to flip through the crisp, hand-written pages of the ledger, perusing the names of those long-ago Alamedans who visited the plant to pay their electric bills. But that book is more than century-old electric accounts. It’s a symbol of a 125-year-old community-owned electric company that is still providing power to new generations of some of those same Alameda families.

On July 11, 1887, Alameda’s Board of Trustees (the predecessor to today’s City Council) voted to enter the power business, thereby creating the oldest municipal electric utility west of the Mississippi. In creating its own community-owned power company, the city was expressing the American ideal of neighbor helping neighbor: local people working together to meet local needs. Like community schools, parks, hospitals, police and fire departments, community-owned power is a locally created institution that addresses a basic community need: electricity as an essential public service.

That’s why, in 1930, Alamedans voted to establish an independent Public Utilities Board to ensure that their treasured utility, renamed the Bureau of Electricity, would remain under local control and generate a return to the community. 125 years later, the City of Alameda is still in the power business and still a trendsetter.

Now known as Alameda Municipal Power (AMP), our utility ensures that profit is taken out of the equation so that AMP can focus solely on providing safe, reliable power at lower rates to our community. In fact, AMP’s lower rates preserve more than $10 million per year in the local economy. What’s more, local control allows AMP to re-invest in the island and provide value to enrich our lives, businesses and the community. Since 1887, AMP has contributed more than $104,000,000 to the City of Alameda’s General Fund.

Local control enabled AMP to become a leader in the promotion of clean, sustainable, and renewable power, decades before global warming became a household word.  Our city is the lowest greenhouse-gas-emitting community in Alameda County and one of the lowest in the state.

Local control also fosters a unique connection between AMP and the community—a connection that is rare between a utility and its customers. On weekends my wife and I like to take our dog for a long walk. Often I’ll recognize AMP customers as we make our way through the neighborhoods. I’m not greeted as someone from the power company; I’m greeted as a neighbor or a friend. It’s one of the many things that makes me proud to work for our community’s power company. Our connection is not business-to-customer; it’s Alamedan-to-Alamedan.

When I flip through the pages of that century-old cash book on my desk, I also think about what the person in my position will look at 125 years from now. Granted, it won’t be a hardbound ledger with handwritten entries, but I am proud to know that my name will be among the entries of Alamedans who were fortunate to be a part of this successful Alameda enterprise.