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Public Power - the real Green Power

By Paul Pickett and Joanne McCaughan

By now, most readers already know that the issue of Public Power will be on the November ballot. A local citizen's group, Thurston Public Power Initiative (TPPI), recently organized over a hundred volunteers who collected 15,000+ signatures from registered voters to place the first-ever county-wide initiative to a vote of the people in Thurston County. The ballot measure is short and simple: "Shall Public Utility District No. 1 of Thurston County construct or acquire electric facilities for the generation, transmission, or distribution of electric power?" But the implications of this initiative have created a lot of debate.

What will it mean if the voters in November give Thurston PUD the authority to enter the electric utility business? And, as readers of the Green Pages will want to know, will it be good for the environment?

The range of possibilities is wide. If approved by the voters, Thurston PUD would have ten years to do something with the authority. At one end of the continuum, the PUD could simply supply power for its own water pumps. On the other end, the PUD could acquire all of the electric utility service assets in the county, now owned by Puget Sound Energy (PSE), through eminent domain. In between are a variety of possibilities.

Electric authority would give our PUD access to blocks of cheap federal power that are available only to public utilities through the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA). Thurston County currently consumes around 350 megawatts annually, and BPA will make available 50 megawatts every two years to a new public utility. So, the PUD is interested in how it could use new electric authority to serve parts of the county with these small blocks of power. For example, they could just serve Yelm or the Capital Campus to start with; this would be an incremental approach.

Another possibility for the PUD would be the ability to generate power, an interesting option for green energy advocates. The PUD has several advantages with regard to providing small, decentralized power generation; think solar panels or jellyfish wind turbines, for example. The PUD will also have access to low interest municipal bonds, and certain grant funds available only to public entities. In addition, the PUD would not be driven by profit motives, so certain break-even energy projects that enhance efficiency could be developed. This creates opportunities to partner with local groups like Thurston Energy, investing in local conservation and green energy projects, that a for-profit entity would have little or no interest in.

What, readers might ask, does our current utility provider think about all this? As you may have observed yourself by now, PSE is vehemently opposed to the initiative, primarily because it would break their monopoly in the county. Their highly paid Seattle-based political operatives created a local front group to challenge the credibility of the initiative campaign. Their strategy uses the name recognition of some local former office holders to create an impression that the initiative is dangerous; they characterize PSE as a "known environmental leader".

But how do these claims stand up? PSE asserts they have invested in renewable energy projects; they tout their 'Green Power' program where consumers voluntarily pay a fee to sign up to support certain investments. Customers can also obtain coupons for energy-efficient light bulbs; while nice, these measures don't translate to 'leadership.'

These BPA-sponsored programs are also used by public utilities all around the state. In fact, renewable energy investment is required of all utilities, public and private, by Initiative 937. Many PUDs are investing actively in renewable energy at the local level; for example Snohomish PUD is developing tidal power in Admiralty Inlet, and Douglas PUD is investing in a major wind farm. So, the good environmental deeds that PSE claims are not uniquely theirs; public power entities are making the same kinds of investments in their own communities.

Clearly, this private utility has invested in certain programs to earn the friendship of environmental groups. But what PSE doesn't advertise so loudly is their heavy investment in coal-fired generation. Over half their electric generation comes from coal. Recently, environmental groups announced their plans to sue a PSE-owned coal-fired plant in Colstrip Montana over Clean Air Act violations. How does generating most of their power from coal make PSE an "environmental leader"?

There is one major factor that makes the PUD more likely to be a local "environmental leader" than PSE could ever be, that is local control. PSE is owned by the Macquarie Group in Australia, a 'leading provider of banking, financial, advisory, investment and funds management services' according to their website. Their commitment to the environment is only as deep as their ability to generate profits for their investors.

On the other hand, our PUD is governed by a locally-elected Board of Commissioners. When Thurston County residents and rate-payers want to invest in renewable energy, we can elect and lobby our Commissioners to do so. We can insist that our elected officials divest any interest in coal. No such direct democratic accountability is available with our current corporate utility provider.

So, this November, voters will have a choice. We can vote "yes" on public power; with public power comes local control, and the ability to ensure that our local environmental values will be respected. A 'no' vote means we will continue the PSE monopoly. Whether they decide to keep burning coal, or invest in wind generators, will be up to them and their overseas corporate partners. Local consumers will have no power over those future decisions.

Eighty years ago, when Franklin Roosevelt was running for President, he made a speech in Portland, Oregon regarding public power. "Where a community is not satisfied with the service rendered, or the rates charged by the private utility, it has the undeniable basic right, as one of its functions of government, one of its functions of home rule, to set up, after a fair referendum to its voters has been had, its own governmentally owned and operated service." Are we listening? This is what democracy looks like!

Paul Pickett is a former Thurston PUD Commissioner. Joanne McCaughan is the Treasurer of the Thurston Public Power Initiative. In the interest of full disclosure at least one of the authors has previously participated in the voluntary Green Energy program.

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Updated 2015/01/07 21:14:22