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The Future of Norman Utilities: Earth Rebirth hosts discussion on OG&E contract renewal

Deon Osborne / Red Dirt Report
Earth Rebirth hosts a community discussion on the future of Norman Utilities.
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NORMAN, Okla.- A local environmental nonprofit voiced strong concerns with  Oklahoma Gas and Electric’s (OG&E) current monopoly over the city Wednesday night during one of its monthly community discussions.

A light but passionate gathering of concerned citizens greeted Earth Rebirth president Andrew Sartain, who also sits on Norman’s Environmental Control Advisory Board, as he hosted a discussion on the upcoming city-wide vote to renew a 25-year agreement with Oklahoma’s largest energy utility company.

Earth Rebirth President Andrew Sartain explains the OG&E contract. (Deon Osborne / Red Dirt Report) 

OG&E Energy Corp currently operates in 276 communities across Oklahoma, and their agreement with Norman is set to expire in December 2018. At a city council meeting on August 22, Normanites raised concerns about OGE’s perceived unwillingness to negotiate any points of the agreement. 

The push for more municipal control and clean energy comes as dozens of cities around the United States have set deadlines for 100% renewable energy. More than 370 mayors representing nearly 70 million Americans have already signed the Paris Climate Agreement.

Though no city or Mayor of Oklahoma has yet to make the agreement, the Sierra Club has spearheaded a national campaign for 100% renewable energy goals with advocacy groups popping up around the country.

The first statement of OGE’s franchise agreement with Norman states “the Franchise grants to the Company, for a period of 25 years, the right to produce, transmit and distribute electricity within the Town limits, the right to use the streets and alleys for such system, and to sell electricity therein for all purposes for which it may be used.”

Out of four amendments that were advocated for, the council passed two to be added to the agreement: a five-year opt out clause and a moratorium on OGE’s use of chemical spray for removing trees unless authorized by the city.

OG&E spokesman Brian Alford said the 25-year agreement time length is meant to ensure the utility is able to cover the cost of investment. He warned that when a city makes additions or amendments the additional cost ends up going to the customers: Norman residents.

Norman resident Jim Jenkins discusses frustrations with the OG&E contract agreement. (Deon Osborne / Red Dirt Report) 

Alford said other changes Norman wants to see should be done through a municipal ordinance instead of through the franchise agreement.  He said that though city council members asked questions about amendments in the study sessions, there were no specific goals the city acknowledged it was pushing for.

At Wednesday’s community discussion, Sartain acknowledged the tension between city council members and the mayor over how the amendments were added. Sartain said he believes OG&E is hindering residents from fully taking advantage of Federal tax credits for solar energy and would like to see a third-party or municipally owned utility in Norman if OG&E doesn’t agree to the amendments.

Alford said that residents already have the option to install solar or wind to their homes. However, Oklahoma does not currently allow residents who have an excess of energy to sell that energy back to the grid or other customers.

It was Mayor Lynn Miller who first publicly expressed her disagreement with the amendments and some city council members in a Letter to the Norman Transcript. She complained that she and OGE had only seen the written amendments an hour before the meeting. City council members and residents fired back acknowledging that both the Mayor and OG&E had verbally discussed the amendments for weeks during study sessions and were trying to rush the city to a vote on the unamended agreement.

James Chappel, an OG&E community affairs manager and former Norman Ward 5 city councilman, advocated for OG&E and continued to deny any negotiations could take place at all until it was clear that City Council would not pass the agreement for a vote without amendments.

Chappel was initiated to the city council in 2016 by a controversial hat toss after a deadlocked 4-4 city council vote, beating out his opponent Sereta Wilson. Mayor Lynn Miller is a known friend of Chappel and advocated for him during the campaign.

A year later, Sereta Wilson challenged Chappel again and won. She now serves on the Council as a strong supporter of amending the current agreement with OG&E, while Chappel is now back to officially working for OG&E.

“Were they [OG&E] surprised by the fact that we came prepared with four amendments? Yes. Were they surprised by the details of what was discussed? No,” Wilson said.

“We can’t be nimble about this agreement when we have new technologies to prepare for,” Wilson said.

Norman Ward 4 City Councilman Bill Hickman attempted to clear up misconceptions on Facebook following the meeting:

“I’ve never seen those that should be on the side of the city and its people assist the other side as much as I have in recent commentary,” Hickman said. “I’m also a small business person and heard from many downtown businesses like mine, large and small, when it came to the need for better terms from OGE.”

At the end of Wednesday’s community discussion, people were told to write letters to the editor expressing their concerns of OGE.

Sartain said a commitment to setting a goal for 100 percent renewable energy is a “no brainer.”

Sartain said in order to achieve more municipal control of energy utility and production, the real battle starts next year on the state level.

With a Republican-dominated state government that prides itself on local government having more authority than federal government, one would think Oklahoma would encourage its cities to have autonomy over its own decisions.

Yet, at least in the area of energy utilities and production, the conservative state government has made it clear that it prefers large and deeply entrenched energy monopolies over a free market of increasingly affordable and expanding renewable energy companies.

Normanites will vote on the amended OG&E renewal agreement on November 14, 2017.

“Should it pass, the decision will rest with OG&E on whether to accept,” OG&E spokesman Brian Alford said.

The decision will likely set a precedent for other Oklahoma cities, large and small, partnered with OG&E.

According to Municipal Electric Systems of Oklahoma (MESO), there are currently 63 municipally owned electric distribution utilities in the state.

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Deon Osborne

Born and raised in Minneapolis, Minnesota, Deon Osborne moved to Lawton, OK at the age of 11. He...

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About Red Dirt Report

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