When the borough of Pitcairn started distributing its own electricity, Thomas Edison was only 20 years removed from first displaying the lightbulb in New Jersey. Pitcairn, then a small railroad town, lacked service from the emerging electric companies in the area. In 1902 the town decided to distribute electricity itself and hasn’t stopped since.

Now, it’s one of only two municipalities in Allegheny County, along with Tarentum, to operate its own electric system. They are members of the Pennsylvania Municipal Electric Association, which supports the 35 Pennsylvania boroughs that have a public power system.

All of them, according to PMEA Executive Director Diane Bosak, have origins that date back decades.

“Pretty much, the 35 that have public power have had it for a very, very long time,” she said.

It would be cost-prohibitive for other municipalities to acquire poles, substations and other infrastructure from an investor-owned company like Duquesne Light. That means it’s unlikely Pitcairn and Tarentum will add any new members to their small club anytime soon.

But if a municipality can, Tarentum Borough Manager Dwight Boddorf would recommend it. “The longer I’m here, the better I believe it is for residents,” he said.

Pitcairn purchases electricity wholesale from American Electric Power, according to its website, while Tarentum purchases from PSE&G. Buying at market value means offering electricity at market rates to borough residents, who pay about the same for their electricity as other Allegheny County residents.

The money paid by residents goes back into the borough rather than toward to an outside company. Both boroughs pay various electricity costs, such as transformers and the salaries of technicians, but Pitcairn and Tarentum emphasized that their boroughs experience significant boosts in yearly revenue.

“All the revenues we produce and receive from sale of electricity stays in the borough,” said Michael Bolen, the borough manager in Pitcairn. That revenue goes to the borough’s general fund, which is used for local projects, maintenance and public safety.

Pitcairn, for instance, has 24/7 police protection — rare for a borough of its size. Bolen attributed that to electricity revenue. Similarly, Pitcairn has plans to revamp a parking lot behind the borough building to add more green space and make it more visually appealing. Officials hope to add more walking trails and pavilions to the borough’s parks.

Other Pennsylvania boroughs see similar perks.

“There are tremendous spinoff benefits,” Bosak said. “These communities are reinvesting that money in significant ways.”

(Tarentum Borough)

One-third of Tarentum’s general fund comes from its electric system. There’s “no way” that money could be replaced by tax dollars, Boddorf said. The borough has invested in a business facade improvement program, providing grants to local businesses to improve the aesthetics at the front of their buildings.

“There are a lot of benefits,” Boddorf said. “We maintain roads and sidewalks at a higher standard.” The roads “are some of the best around in the winter” because of a larger public works department, which includes more snowplows, he said.

Operating a local electric utility is not without its challenges. Pitcairn and Tarentum don’t have the same resources as major companies to hire workers who do the difficult job of repairing power lines, and it’s already difficult to find qualified personnel in the area. Tarentum contracts with Schultheis Electric, a company in Latrobe, to provide a dedicated technician.

Additionally, inflation has doubled and even tripled costs of necessary equipment. Boroughs with public power systems consult with PMEA, and each other, to create optimal budgets.

The increased responsibility that comes with operating a system like this changes the role of the local government. Boddorf had a “learning curve” to get up to speed with the daily maintenance of an electric system. He said he feels a responsibility to ensure the steady operation of the necessary service, and to promote the efficient reinvestment of revenue.

“We have a duty to be sure that [the electricity] is as operational as possible,” he said. “We have a duty to make sure that those dollars that come into the electric system are making it back into the community as an investment.”

The boroughs take pride in their unique situation. Residents have more control over the decisions that affect their electricity, by virtue of voting for their local council. They can more easily voice complaints, and even show up in person to deposit their bill or request maintenance. There are none of the online customer service hoops commonly encountered with a larger company.

“You can always talk to the people running it,” Boddorf said. “You can’t talk to a CEO.”

Bolen said residents can call in, “and within minutes our electrician is up there fixing it.”

The local autonomy of a public power system is a point of pride for residents, too, Bolen added: “You see trucks with ‘Pitcairn Electric Borough’ and it gives you a sense of community.”

Credit: (Courtesy of the Pennsylvania Municipal Electric Association)

Harrison, a rising senior at Denison University, is a Union Progress summer intern. Email him at hhamm@unionprogress.com.

Harrison Hamm

Harrison, a rising senior at Denison University, is a Union Progress summer intern. Email him at hhamm@unionprogress.com.