The Cleveland Municipal Light Plant was the product of Mayor Tom L. Johnson's vision for a city that owned or controlled all of its own public utilities and public transportation companies. Mayor Johnson's campaign for municipal ownership was pitched under the banner of the "Three Cent Fare," which advocated public transportation and other public services be offered to the public at an affordable $0.03 per ride. The approximate rate of 3 cents per kilowatt-hour lasted until 1957, 54 years after Johnson had proposed it. The city broke ground for the new Municipal Electric plant in 1912, with operation beginning in July 1914.
During its first six months of operation, the Municipal Light Plant did two very important things for Cleveland citizens: it offered cheaper competition for electricity in a market that had previously been monopolized by the Cleveland Electric Illuminating Company (CEI), and it immediately turned a profit for the city. This benefit to the city was recognized abroad, with major industrial cities such as New York and Chicago making an attempt to copy Cleveland's success. The financial success, however, was a threat to CEI, initiating a business battle that would continue long after the Municipal Light Plant ceased operation.
The battle between the Cleveland Municipal Light Plant and CEI came to a boil in 1977, as CEI made an offer to the City of Cleveland to purchase the municipal lighting system in an effort to wrest the city from the large debt that it had accumulated. The mayor at the time, Dennis Kucinich, advocated keeping the municipal lighting system in an effort to prevent CEI from attaining a complete monopoly. In a political battle with the City Council, Kucinich agreed to ask the voters to decide: would Cleveland sell the Municipal Light Plant, or nearly triple the income tax rate of residents? The election was an overwhelming landslide in the favor of Kucinich and the Municipal Light Plant. Though this only worsened Cleveland's financial situation and prevented Kucinich's re-election, the decision helped Cleveland maintain its own municipal light system even to this day. (The system is currently called Cleveland Public Power.) Kucinich also used the legacy of his Municipal Light Plant victory to propel his political career into the House of Representatives.
Today the Municipal Light Plant still stands on East 53rd Street, but it functions in a different capacity than originally intended. In the 1970s the plant began to help ease the burden on the power grid during the hours of peak electrical demand. By the time CEI offered to buy the Municipal Plant, it was already a relic left over from Tom L. Johnson. Today, the building stands not only as an important site in Cleveland's history, but as a work of art as well. In 1997, the Municipal Light Plant became the seventy-fifth Whaling Wall, entitled "Song of the Wales," which is a work of art by Robert Wyland. The mural was part of a nationwide effort by the Wyland Foundation, a non-profit organization that aims to raise awareness for aquatic environments and habitats.