This story was originally published by Capital & Main.

When it comes to reducing greenhouse gas emissions and watershed protection, several downballot elections this year in a handful of states could have a major effect in the transition away from fossil fuel. 

The media tend to ignore such contests, which attract far fewer voters than big federal and state elections. But board members of public utilities in Arizona and Nebraska are up for election in coming months, and the results of those contests could potentially transform energy policy for millions of Americans. 

The elections come amid growing concern about the role of money in such races and in the wake of headline-grabbing corruption scandals at utilities across the country. Utility fraud and corruption — in Florida, Illinois, Mississippi, Ohio, and South Carolina — has cost electricity customers at least $6.6 billion, according to an analysis by news nonprofit Floodlight, which noted that “some power companies embrace — or seek to block — the transition away from fossil fuels toward wind, solar, hydrogen, and nuclear, which produce fewer greenhouse gases.”

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On April 2, six clean energy candidates won seats on two boards of the Salt River Project, a not-for-profit utility that provides water and power to more than 2 million people living in central Arizona. It’s one of the largest public power companies in the country. Critics say that it’s also one of the biggest contributors in the Western U.S. to greenhouse gas emissions since it relies on coal, oil, and natural gas to generate more than two-thirds of its energy. Arizona is the sunniest state in the country, yet the Salt River Project gets only 3.4 percent of its energy from solar, lagging behind the state overall, which gets 10 percent from solar.

Though they didn’t win a majority of the board, the new clean energy members could have a greater role shaping the energy future of Phoenix, the fifth-largest city in the U.S. with a population of more than 1.6 million. The election attracted controversy due to rules limiting voter eligibility to property owners and not all rate payers in the district — it also got the attention of famed environmental activists like Bill McKibben, leader of the climate campaign group

Some of the incumbent board members have served for decades because of an election system set up in the early 1900s — when the Valley of the Sun was settled by farmers and ranchers — that allows only property owners to vote and apportions votes by acreage. The more land you own, the more votes you get. 

As a result, most of the utility’s customers don’t have a say in choosing the leadership of a body that sets their energy rates and decides what energy sources they use to generate electricity.

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The clean energy advocates promise to accelerate solar deployments, adjust rates to incentivize the use of rooftop solar, and strengthen watershed protection in a region that is increasingly suffering from drought and extreme heat. In 2023, Phoenix saw a record 54 days when the temperature hit 110 degrees.

“We call ourselves the Valley of the Sun for a reason,” said Randy Miller, a winning Salt River Project board member who supports the slate of clean energy candidates and was motivated to run several years ago when he was told that his energy rates would nearly triple since he installed rooftop solar on his home. “I couldn’t believe it, the nearby ASP [Arizona Public Service] district has more than triple the amount of rooftop solar. Higher rates are a complete disincentive to getting solar power. We need new leadership on the board.”

The candidates were especially motivated in light of a state commission’s recent decision to scrap its renewable energy standard, the only state to take such action, according to solar industry advocates. That body, the Arizona Corporation Commission, also has an election coming up in August.

Longtime board member Stephen H. Williams, who defeated one of the clean energy candidates, did not return calls from Capital & Main for comment.

The current board members running for reelection had pushed back against the new candidates, sending out flyers touting “40 combined years of providing affordable and reliable power and water” and citing sustainability as one of their concerns. They criticized what they called an attempted “takeover” by “ideological extremists,” claiming that Salt River Project “has managed to reduce carbon intensity by 35 percent since 2005, despite the dramatic growth happening in our service area.”

The insurgents in the Salt River Project race had hoped to emulate Nebraska, where clean energy advocates won three seats in 2016 on the heavily rural Nebraska Public Power District. That helped tip the balance of power and led the board to vote 9-2 in 2021 to aim for net-zero emissions in the utility’s generation by 2050. As a result, with the state’s other two major power utilities already making similar pledges in recent years, Nebraska became the first GOP-dominated state to commit to net-zero electricity emissions.

The end result was a long-sought goal of climate activists and environmental groups, such as the Nebraska Conservation Voters and the Sierra Club, which poured money into the 2018 and 2020 races. Before that, such races were sleepy affairs with incumbents running unopposed. The unprecedented level of campaign contributions sparked debate in this year’s election cycle, with some state lawmakers recently pushing to make the elections partisan so that voters have a better idea of each candidate’s agenda.

“Nebraskans support clean energy” but the utilities didn’t reflect those values — and so it became a matter of organizing and educating voters, said Chelsea Johnson, deputy director of Nebraska Conservation Voters, describing recent election results. “You can have a really big impact running for these local offices.”