Power to the People?

Pensacola May Soon Consider Municipal Utility
By Jeremy Morrison

Although the Pensacola City Council shied away from the topic this week, it looks like a discussion will soon be had concerning the merits of a municipally-owned electric utility company.

Pensacola City Councilwoman Jennifer Brahier is pushing for a feasibility study centered on the concept of the city forgoing a franchise agreement with Florida Power and Light in favor of producing and providing its own electricity.

“This is simply doing our due diligence to do a feasibility study,” Councilwoman Brahier said during the Oct. 11 agenda conference, framing the feasibility as “the responsible thing to do.”

Currently, the city of Pensacola is negotiating a franchise agreement with Florida Power and Light, though that process is long-running and now stalled.

“We’ve been operating in sort of the month-to-month for a long time,” said Pensacola Mayor Grover Robinson.

Brahier pointed out that the city last negotiated a franchise agreement in the late 1970s, and was now looking to do so for decades to come, as the landscape of electricity generation continues to evolve with the technological improvements in green technology like solar power.

“Remember, we haven’t evaluated this in 42 years, and we’re looking to go forward with another 30, that’s 72 years of an ever-changing technology,” Brahier said.

To conduct a feasibility study, the councilwoman said, it’ll take about $20,000. Other council members seemed intrigued, but some wondered about the timing of the request.

“For me, I think it’s an interesting conversation,” said Council President Jared Moore, going on to say the issue “doesn’t pass the timely-sniff test for me.”

The issue Moore, as well as the mayor and other council members, had was that Brahier presented this item as an add-on item to the agenda conference instead of scheduling it for a regularly slated discussion.

“Can you talk about the time-sensitivity — why it’s got to be this week?” Moore asked.

Brahier asserted that the city administration was actively pursuing a franchise agreement and that the council needed to have the results of a feasibility study at hand when needed.

“They’re pushing right now to sign it now,” Brahier said.

Mayor Robinson disagreed, telling the council that while Florida Power and Light was keener on getting a franchise deal wrapped up than its predecessor Gulf Power, there was nothing of note in the hopper.

“Mr. President, I think we can end this real fast; we have nothing left on this, nothing eminent that is coming forward one way or another with the franchise agreement,” Robinson said.

Brahier insisted this was inaccurate — “Are you honestly saying that within the last two weeks they did not ask to bring forward an agreement?” — and maintained that a feasibility study needed to be done immediately.

Councilwoman Ann Hill agreed, calling it an “urgent matter,” as did Councilwoman Sherri Myers, who said that if the issue would require a lot of work, then the task should be started as quickly as possible.

“I think if it’s as important as the mayor says it is, why not start now?” Myers said.

Mayor Robinson jumped in to clarify that the study could wait, even telling the council that he was “happy to stop all negotiations” if need be.

“There’s nothing pressing,” Robinson said. “I’m telling you right now; we will not do anything.”

President Moore concluded that it didn’t matter what the administration was doing insofar as negotiations go, as the city council will ultimately have to sign off on any franchise deal.

“Whether the administration or Gulf Power has been secretly running around — the buck stops here,” Moore said.

The council president went on to say that the feasibility study and overall proposition of a municipal utility is a “pretty significant ask” and contended that “for the sake of process,” the issue should be slated as a regular agenda item at a later meeting. The issue, Moore said, amounts to a “thrilling conversation,” but not one that should be rushed into.

“We control the clock,” Moore said.

Enough city council members agreed with the president on this front, with a 4-3 vote putting this feasibility study on hold for now.

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1 thought on “Power to the People?

  1. Based on what I heard, and I think that city staff knows more about what is going on than Mayor Robinson who is hardly ever at work to judge by his empty parking space, NextEra’ Energy’s subsidiary Florida Power & Light was and is pressing the city to accept a new franchise agreement on terms less favorable to the city. The current electric power agreement expired 12 years ago so it makes sense to let the new mayor and the new council members deal with this in 2023. Until Councilwoman Brahier brought forward her agenda item, I had never heard of the Florida Municipal Electric Association, or the other associations of local government electric power companies. Based on my limited research to date, I think we’d end up with a more reliable, more resilient and more diversified city energy grid. All good things. Because the city is not run for-profit, I think the cost of electric power would be less. I believe that there are opportunities for federal, state and private foundation grants to help pay for the undergrounding of utilities in the city. I did find a state law that directly said the undergrounding of utilities to make the grid more resilient to storms was an important state priority. I suspect it would be a federal government priority too. Imagine if a massive storm knocks out everyone but the city to include the airport is still up and running. Pensacola Energy would need more employees to do the work currently done by those with NextEra Energy so that means more jobs for city residents some of whom might later go to work for Florida Power & Light that would not be going away and still providing power “out in the county.” I suspect that this could be a game changer in another way. People who own property on the cusp of the city now have no great incentive to be annexed into the city. However, the prospect of utilities that stay up during storms and lower rates might motivate some to want to became part of the city. I’ve birddogged city hall for 14 years. This is the first thing I’ve seen come out of anyone in city hall that could be BIG. I’ve got nothing against Florida Power & Light other than my power goes our 3-4 times a year. I do find it odd that when a crew shows up to fix things, they are sometimes from Oklahoma and do not speak English. I do think it would be better if we had local city people running our local city power grid.

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