Tim Jacobsen: Local ownership of electric utility makes sense

Our city, like many, is facing some challenging times. Often, the reaction is to retreat; to bunker down – maybe even to start giving our responsibilities to others.

In contrast, I want to propose an idea that looks forward, to the long term – a positive and far-reaching idea that has the potential to support many of this community’s goals. Can you think of one idea that has the potential to support all of the following community goals?

– Lower the cost of operating our homes and businesses in the future;

– Create a more self-sustaining local living economy;

– Give us greater control over lowering our carbon footprint, conserving energy and responding to climate change;

– Provide a source of local family-wage jobs, and a way to recycle millions of dollars within our community rather than exporting those dollars;

– Enable our city to more efficiently deploy crews and equipment to accomplish multiple services for our community, and;

– Give us a long-term strategy for cleaner, more reliable and less costly electric power.

The idea is public power through local ownership of our own island-wide electric utility. Many communities in Washington, including communities our size or smaller, have elected to own and control their own electric utility.

The Northwest has had a public power heritage since the building of Grand Coulee Dam in the 1930s. Under federal law, we could form a public power utility that would have a preferential right to buy low-cost power from the Bonneville Power Administration.

BPA would be obligated to arrange delivery to the island, however, it has set aside a limited amount of its lowest price power for new public utilities. We need to act if we want to consider this opportunity.

BPA generates its power with close to zero carbon emissions, primarily from hydroelectric dams. PSE has a heavy dependence on coal-fired and fossil-fuel plants. Community power would allow the island to reduce its carbon footprint.

The BPA wholesale power would enable our city – after a two- to three-year waiting period – to offer rates lower than PSE rates. The island would also be more competitive in attracting clean businesses.

Here’s a remarkable fact. All but one of the public power systems in Washington have lower electrical rates than PSE, and this difference is expected to grow in the future.

Recently, PSE was sold to foreign investors resulting in the profits from our electricity to leave our community and country. By contrast, local control would allow the city to reinvest its utility’s surplus revenue in the Island – perhaps to invest in subsidizing home and business energy conservation programs, or improving power reliability by burying more power lines.

We could invest in renewable energy such as solar. We could conduct more aggressive electrical conservation programs to reduce unnecessary power usage and reduce the need for new electrical infrastructure.

Is it really feasible? The small cities of Port Angeles and Blaine have done it. Nearby Jefferson County just last November voted to do it through a Public Utility District.

Should this be a county-wide effort through a PUD or should it be a city-owned utility? We would realize many of the benefits under either ownership. A county-wide PUD would give us strength in numbers. However, a city-owned utility would give us more local control over how the surplus revenues are used to accomplish the goals important to the Island.

Is the city capable of managing an enterprise of this size? Although our city has experienced challenges in the operation of its utilities, it can develop the expertise necessary. However, this will only happen if the city proactively addresses those issues, and does not just run from them or transfer the responsibility to others. We also would need council members with the skills and ability to lead the community through the feasibility review and decision process.

It would be a large step for the island to establish the utility. However, we will not know if public power is the best long-term solution if we do not take the first step. It will be a community decision.

To make that decision, we need to learn more about the advantages and disadvantages of a locally owned utility. We need to know the costs. We need to understand the process. Others who have preceded us in accomplishing this goal are there to help us through the process.

A community becomes stronger when it works towards a common goal – when it is progressing, not retreating.

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