Alameda Municipal Power is the oldest municipal utility west of the Mississippi River and among the oldest in the nation.
- In the Beginning
- Moonlighting & Street Lights
- Power in the City
- Progress Marches On
- The 1990s
- New Energy Crisis & Power & Telecom
- Back to the Future
In 1885, the Jenney Electric Company, under contract with the City, constructed a small 90-kilowatt generating plant at what is now the corner of Park Street and Otis Drive, the site of the present Ann B. Diament Senior Plaza. Also installed were 13 iron masts, 12-feet high, from which clusters of arc lamps furnished street lighting. The cost of this installation was $20,000, and the operating cost to the City was $9,720 per year.
Apparently, it was the intention of the City’s Board of Trustees to purchase the plant upon assurance of its successful operation. However, in 1887, the price had increased to $40,000, $15,000 of which was to be diverted from funds allocated to sewer improvements, and the balance was to be financed through a bond issue.
The purchase price and source of funding set off quite a bit of controversy. There were those who thought the price was too high, and figures were given showing that it would take 101 years to pay off the debt. But on Monday evening, July 11, 1887, Alameda’s Board of Trustees considered the matter, voted to proceed, and Alameda entered the power business.
MOONLIGHTING AND STREETLIGHTS
For the first few years of operation, the utility’s main purpose was street lighting. It’s interesting to note that, in its early years, Alameda’s street lighting was not energized during periods of moonlight. This moonlight schedule was common in most cities with electric street lighting at the turn of the century.
By 1913, the Alameda Electric Lamp Post served as a model for the nation’s urban street lighting systems. Alameda soon became known as the best-lighted city in the Bay Area, having more and better lampposts than any other city per unit of population while its customers benefited from lower rates.
Alameda’s Department of Public Utilities continued to generate all its own power until 1920, when the cost of oil reached an outrageous $1 per barrel. The electric plant was shut down, and except for a brief period during the drought of 1924, all power has been secured under contracts from facilities located outside of the City. Initially, electricity was obtained from the Great Western Power Company in Oakland which was later absorbed by the Pacific Gas and Electric Company.
In the early 1930s, Alameda’s Department of Public Utilities was one of the first agencies, either public or private, to receive a federal government license for a general experimental station. The utility constructed one of the first two-way radio systems in the nation for the Alameda Police Department. At that time, Alameda Municipal Power constructed a Citywide municipal fire alarm system. The Fire Alarm Building still stands behind Alameda Municipal Power’s Central Substation on Grand Street.
The City hired Mr. B. Ray Fritz as its City Manager. One of Mr. Fritz’s first actions was to fire the General Manager of the Bureau of Electricity and install his own man. It was a time of patronage and kickbacks. Eventually, Mr. Fritz was convicted of a number of crimes and sent to San Quentin where he died.
As a result of these days of city darkness, two charter changes were made, one in 1935 and one in 1937. These amendments formed the basis for Alameda Municipal Power’s present organization.
PROGRESS MARCHES ON
Bureau of Transportation
In the mid 1930s, the Department of Public Utilities consisted of two Bureaus, the Bureau of Electricity and the Bureau of Transportation. The Bureau of Transportation ran several bus lines, none of which were profitable. By the end of the decade, the busses had all been sold and the Bureau of Transportation was dissolved. Alameda’s municipal utility continued to serve the community as the Bureau of Electricity for more than 60 years.
The Bureau of Electricity
Just like all other power companies across the nation, the Bureau was greatly affected by the oil embargo of 1979 and the subsequent energy crises. In order to diversify resources, the utility began purchasing power from suppliers other than PG&E in 1982.
In the spring of 1996, the Naval Air Station - Alameda closed. It was the Bureau’s largest customer at the time, one that provided up to one-third of annual revenues.
The distribution system at the base had been constructed to Navy standards years ago, and substantial upgrades of these lines continued to be required to meet State utility standards. The Bureau had invested millions of dollars to ensure that the Station had power, and it faced the potential loss of other customers. In order to lessen impacts to the electric bill payers of Alameda, the Bureau took an active part in the conversion process and was the first electric utility in the nation to achieve a utility operating and maintenance agreement with the Department of Defense.
The Times They Were a Changing
The federal Telecommunications Act of 1996 was enacted. The Bureau had installed fiber-optic cable in the City’s two large business parks, with the intent to extend this infrastructure throughout its system. Goals included increased system protection and automation, a better platform for decision-making, improved efficiency, increased reliability, and lower costs.
In light of the system’s capacity and the need to increase revenues, the Bureau began investigating provision of additional services, including municipal cable television and Internet access.
In the fall of 1996, the California State Legislature voted to deregulate the electric utility industry to provide direct customer access to electricity suppliers. The State’s electric utilities anticipated an evolutionary change, much like the breakup of AT&T in the 1970s. At the time, the Bureau expected that competition might drive it to open its service territory to other energy providers.
In August 1997, the City’s Public Utilities Board approved a Telecommunications Business Plan and forwarded the Plan to City Council for its consideration. It was determined that housekeeping changes to the Alameda City Charter would be required before additional telecommunications services could be offered. These changes were adopted by the Alameda electorate in 1998.
First Solar Power
Also in 1998, Alameda Municipal Power installed its first solar generation plant, a 4-kiloWatt installation on a garage roof at its Service Center. Despite having achieved by then a power portfolio with a 75% renewable content, Alameda Municipal Power began offering a New Renewables Option and later the “Clean Futures Fund” to its customers.
ENERGY CRISIS AND POWER & TELECOM
The Bureau of Electricity became Alameda Power and Telecom in the fall of 1999. Concurrently, the Public Utilities Board voted to delay the start of direct access, …until uncertainties at the federal level are resolved. This decision would serve to insulate the Alameda community from most of the “rolling blackouts” and extreme price volatility of the next 2 years.
The first retail cable television customer received service in July 2001, with Internet access subscriptions taken 6 months later. However, in November 2008, the Public Utilities Board recommended to the City Council the sale of the telecommunications business line.
A combination of a heat wave and a supply shortage heralded the beginning of a Statewide energy crisis by producing a series of outages in the State in June 2000. Throughout 2000 and 2001, Alameda Power and Telecom cooperated with all State orders to reduce demand, but with some limited exceptions in the initial stages of the crisis, the lights in the City remained on.
BACK TO THE FUTURE
In January 2009, Alameda Municipal Power was adopted as the collective name for its remaining electric business line.