Power to the People

Is it time for public power in Bellingham?


What: Dennis Kucinich: Climate Change & Public Power

When: 7 pm Thu., Feb. 6

Where: Bellingham Unitarian Fellowship, 1207 Ellsworth St.


Wednesday, February 5, 2020

Public power, a publicly owned municipal utility. It’s an idea that has been tossed around in Bellingham from time to time—most notably during the spot energy crisis of the start of this century, caused by market manipulations and capped retail electricity prices that shuttered several major industries and employers. A public utility could have assisted with that, and much more.

Thousands of cities in the United States receive their power from public municipal utilities and electricity cooperatives that serve communities. In Bellingham, the city provides water via its publicly owned utility, while power is provided by Puget Sound Energy, an investor-owned utility.

Notably, Bellingham cannot achieve its stated climate and energy goals unless its gas and electric providers, each an investor-owned utility, also agree to meet those fossil fuel reduction targets.

That seems unlikely.

In December, those investor-owned utilities announced they would spend $1 million on a public-relations campaign to promote their fuel as part of the region’s clean-energy future. Their coalition, “Partners for Energy Progress,” is scheduled for roll out early this year.

Who pays the cost for their PR lobbying? Well—you do.

This week, state regulators approved a settlement for Cascade Natural Gas resulting in a rate increase for customers. The three-member Utilities and Transportation Commission approved an all-party settlement resulting in a $6.5 million, or 2.8 percent, increase in Cascade’s natural gas annual revenues. The settlement cut by almost half the company’s originally requested rate increase of $12.7 million, or 5.6 percent. The UTC is the state agency that regulates private, investor-owned electric and natural gas utilities in Washington.

Kennewick-based Cascade Natural Gas Corporation serves almost 220,000 residential and business customers in 68 communities throughout the state, including Bellingham and Mount Vernon.

Cascade Natural Gas was critical of recommendations by the Bellingham Climate Action task force that included phasing gas out of buildings and reducing reliance on gas produced from hydraulic fracking.

The UTC also approved a rate increase for Puget Sound Energy, allowing the utility to charge customers 14 percent more for gas in October, along with an another 8 percent increase in electricity. The proposal to increase the return on equity (profit for shareholders) is currently under review by the state Attorney General.

Also a major supplier of natural gas, Puget Sound Energy had already raised their fracked gas rates by 14.1 percent in November, despite a market reduction in gas prices.

“Unlike publicly owned energy utilities that are cheaper, cleaner and provide more reliable service, privately held Puget Sound Energy gets more than 60 percent of its energy from dirty fossil fuels such as coal and fracked gas,” notes Stacy Oaks, an organizer with climate solutions advocate 350 Seattle. “To keep gas customers dependent on their services, PSE spends millions on lobbyists in Olympia, campaign contributions, and recently even helped form a group called Partners for Energy Progress with the mission of touting the benefits of gas and to help ‘prevent or defeat’ initiatives that inhibit its use, such as banning gas hookups in new construction.”

As an example of their influence, private gas utilities showed up in force at a Jan. 27 committee hearing in Olympia to oppose House Bill 2586, which would clarify that public utilities have the option of providing incentives to customers to upgrade to more efficient electric heat sources regardless of whether they are currently using gas, oil, or electricity to heat their homes. Private utilities can already offer these types of incentives (though few do), but the law has been unclear regarding public utilities’ authority.

In addition to the climate, health and safety benefits of moving more buildings towards increasingly clean electricity, retooling for energy efficiency would also ensure more low-income customers benefit from bill payment assistance programs that were greatly expanded by the 2019 Clean Energy Transformation Act.

Citizens in south Puget Sound say they’ve had enough, and are preparing to place an initiative for public power on their ballot. Those of us in the north Puget Sound may have it a little easier.

“Residents in Thurston County and East King County are organizing to pass ballot measures forming public utility districts, to sever their forced dependence on PSE’s dirty energy,” Oaks reported. “Voters in Jefferson County did just that in 2008.  Maybe it’s time we all take back our energy independence.”

Whatcom County has had its own public utility district in place for nearly a century, an artifact of efforts by farm granges and other groups to electrify rural farms early in the last century. Bringing power to remote areas was challenging and expensive, and private utilities at the time refused to cooperate. The parallels are comparable to the reluctance of modern utilities to retool in response to climate change. Today, Whatcom PUD #1 serves water and water to a few cities and large industries—but its mandate and structure allows it to do much more.

We’re actually ahead of communities who are only now coming to understand the benefits of public power. Those benefits can include lower electric rates and an accelerated transition to clean energy. It also means utility payments circulate locally, and are not spent fighting against climate initiatives.

Former U.S. Congressman Dennis Kucinich will speak about the importance of publicly owned electric utilities at 7pm on Thurs., Feb. 6 at the Bellingham Unitarian Fellowship

Kucinich got his start in politics fighting—and winning—to protect the Cleveland municipal electric company, which was on the verge of being privatized when he became mayor. Kucinich later served for 16 years in the U.S. House of Representatives and continues to advocate for public ownership of utilities.

Also speaking at the RE Sources-hosted event are: Christine Grant, Bellingham Climate Task Force member, instructor at WWU Institute for Energy Studies, consultant for electric cooperatives and municipal utilities; and Atul Deshmane, Public Utility Commissioner, Whatcom County Planning Commissioner, clean energy consultant, business leader, engineer. Kucinich, Grant, and Deshmane will be available for a questions at the end of the presentation.

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