It's hard to picture--literally envision--electricity. Much the way we answer a child who asks "Why is the sky blue?", it's tempting to use simplified metaphors or symbols. A lightning bolt, perhaps, or an electrical outlet. Electricity courses through our lives like oxygen, yet generally only comes up when it's, well, down.

Many towns and cities can picture electricity just fine: Their power is woven into the texture and spirit of their community. Big burbs like Los Angeles, Nashville, and Seattle and also charming havens like Hobgood, North Carolina (population: 328) light up their houses, their businesses, their lives with public power. And it's made a transformative difference in where and what they call home.

What is public power? Basically, it's electricity that comes from a community-owned and community-operated utility. Community is the crux--to public power users, the utility is akin to public schools and libraries: a division of local government, run by a board of their neighbors, and owned by each of them. The goal is to provide a safe and reliable source of electricity at a reasonable price. And the value goes beyond quantifiable dollars and cents. It's a pretty nice picture.

Public power utilities maintain affordable rates by being notfor-profit, regardless of whether they're owned by a city, a district, a county, or even a state. The bottom line isn't net gains or shareholder bonuses; the bottom line is customer satisfaction and a healthy hometown culture. This is local people working together to meet local needs, and it's happening in 49 states, keeping the lights on for 49 million people, including 1.2 million here in North Carolina.

Community remains paramount in public power decisions because they're handled out in the open, discussed between the board of neighbors and citizens. Often, this means surplus dollars are invested into local small businesses or capital improvements are funded by tax-exempt bonds. There are increased efficiencies, reduced costs, and lower taxes for all. Public power leaders create local jobs, utility positions for community members who in turn contribute to the local fabric of life through both their spending dollars and their human capital--participating in civic organizations, schools, church activities, and sports teams. It's a win-win cycle for the local culture and the local economy: many public power utilities partner with and support other local government divisions. They might donate...

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