Power to the People
Christine Grant seeks expanded roles for public utility district
What: Bill McKibben and Christine Grant: A Conversation
When: 5:00 pm Thu., Aug. 20
Whatcom County PUD candidate Christine Grant and climate activist Bill McKibben discuss a range of topics focused on clean energy and climate science,. Jeremiah “Jay” Julius, former Chairman of the Lummi Nation, will provide an introduction to the teleconference
Wednesday, August 19, 2020
The towering high-tension lines of the Pacific Northwest power grid hum away to the southeast. Here, tucked away on a quiet road in an obscure corner of Ferndale with the county’s most exquisite views of the western face of Mt. Baker and the Sisters, the cool, modest offices of Whatcom County PUD No. 1 seem alert for opportunities.
It’s an expectation, in this nexus of power and natural beauty, that seldom arrives.
The very name tells its story: Whatcom County Public Utility District Number One was among the first of its kind formed in the state—the product of dynamic citizens who understood control of their utilities was vital to their local economy, and to the public initiatives they deemed important. But where other similar districts around the state have flourished over the decades—providing power, water and diverse utility services—Whatcom PUD has languished, its potential unrealized.
The elected commission of PUD holds their meetings in this location. The meetings are brief and sparsely attended. The comments of the three commissioners, a diverse and talented group, while noted and recorded are not made broadly available to the public. The agency has no presence on social media. The PUD’s general manager, Steve Jilk—vital, expressive and articulate—is eager for an expanded role in planning for the county’s future that, for a number of reasons, just doesn’t arrive.
They have only one power customer—a refinery, and not even the county’s largest refinery.
Efforts to do more have been stillborn.
The sense is the PUD doesn’t do much; but the more accurate reality is the PUD has capacity to do so much more than it does.
While the utility can purchase electricity from the federal Bonneville Power Administration at the lowest cost, Whatcom PUD No. 1 has only that single customer—the Phillips 66 refinery at Cherry Point. The utility has enormous capacity to serve water to farms, industries and neighborhoods, but this role has been taken up by the county’s patchwork of water districts and water associations. A plan a few years back to catalogue, understand and light up the county’s extensive fiber network to provide telecommunications services was killed in the quarreling competition of for-profit cable service providers—a fancy notion without a business plan.
“PUDs across the state are innovating to serve their communities through widespread access to affordable high-speed internet, cheaper and cleaner power, and innovative water management. Here in Whatcom County, our PUD provides minimal services and has fallen decades behind,” Christine Grant said.
She’s running for a spot on the commission to help change that.
“I am an industry consultant, not a politician,” Grant admitted, “but we need an industry expert who is passionate about modernizing the PUD.”
Over the last ten years, Grant helped win $25 million in funding for regional clean energy infrastructure and jobs initiatives. She has advised utilities across the country on a range of issues including finance, billing and program management. Grant served on the board of directors of Spark Northwest, a nonprofit that promotes clean energy infrastructure. She also teaches energy policy at Western Washington University’s Institute for Energy Studies.
The PUD race did not have a primary. If elected in November, Grant will be the first woman to serve on the PUD commission in Whatcom County history.
“As a parent, I think climate change is going to be an incredibly defining challenge for my generation and her generation,” Grant said. “I think there is still time to make meaningful change in public policy to address this challenge.”
Grant is known for her thoughtful analysis of policy issues, and has spent her career working with utilities, PUDs and rural electric cooperatives across the country. She served on Bellingham’s climate action task force, and is widely endorsed by over 50 elected officials, business leaders and community members. She seeks an expanded role for the PUD in all of its current (though mostly dormant) areas of activity.
“One of the things that I have become intensely interested in, as an educator and a mother, is the issue of the digital divide,” Grant said, noting the gap across communities in their access to advanced information and communication technologies.
“The digital divide, which has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, is in part what inspired me to run for office,” she admitted. “Internet access is no longer a luxury; it is an essential utility. Many people in Whatcom County have unreliable and expensive internet.
“Other PUDs started building broadband infrastructure 20 years ago. Whatcom families and businesses deserve the same,” Grant said. “The PUD had really delayed in engaging on that issue.“
Similarly, Grant has consulted on agricultural and water issues for clients such as the American Farmland Trust, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, and the Port of Seattle.
Public utility districts are not-for-profit, community-owned utilities. They had their genesis in Washington at the turn of the last century, as private investor-owned utilities (IOUs) declined to provide electricity to rural farms. The IOUs did not see the initial outlay as profitable. That state’s associations of granges and farming communities fought back.
“When we decide that a service is essential, we want to make sure that we keep it affordable and make it accessible to everyone,” Grant said, commenting on the important interplay between the roles of both models of utilities. “Public ownership of a utility can help keep rates low, and it gives communities control over how they get those services.
“The community makes choices about what their utilities look like, with a great deal of local control.”
The Washington Public Utility Districts Initiative, also known as Initiative 1, was on the 1930 ballot as a proposal to the Legislature, where it was approved. The measure authorized the creation of public utility districts to produce and distribute water and electricity, empowered such districts to levy taxes and defined the powers and duties of such districts. Public utilities are empowered by law to deliver services similar to those of private utility providers—power, water, sewer and, potentially, telecommunications and internet services. They can even produce and distribute renewable natural gas and renewable hydrogen as fuel.
The public utility district of Whatcom County was formed in 1937 by a vote of the people with a desire to wrest control of Puget Sound Power & Light operations—an IOU—with a publicly owned electric utility. World War II and federal power initiatives provided the heavy lifting for power infrastructure, stranding this planned role of Whatcom PUD. The building blocks of that effort, though, remain—the border communities of Blaine and Sumas still receive their power in a contract with Bonneville Power.
The PUD went into the water business in the 1960s when Intalco was being planned at Cherry Point. More industrial customers have been added over the years.
PUDs elsewhere are still performing in that essential role of delivering utility services the IOUs deem onerous or unprofitable. And because there are no investor shareholders clamoring for a profit, PUDs are often able to provide these services at remarkable discount to businesses and residents.
“It’s easy to forget that, in some ways, rural counties were Washington’s first progressive powerhouses,” Sightline Institute researcher Eric de Place explains. “Populist agricultural organizations in 1930 helped pass Washington’s first initiative, giving citizens the right to form public utility districts, a new form of small government charged with providing infrastructure services like electricity, telecommunications, and water and sewer. In the years following the initiative, 28 PUDs sprung up across the state.”
Several of these districts, particularly in the eastern sections of the state, are active and dynamic. A few have even explored their own hydroelectric and solar power generation projects. On average PUDs are 95 percent carbon-free, thanks to favorable rates from Bonneville Power.
In the most recent PUD expansion in 2008, voters in Jefferson County approved a ballot initiative with 53 percent support to authorize their water and sewer PUD to wrest control of providing electricity from Puget Sound Energy, the largest private utility in the state. The move created 39 jobs and $11 million in wages for the area, and shifted the district’s power mix, too, from 60 percent fossil fuels to just 2 percent. Importantly, the expanded role of the PUD in Jefferson County provides an avenue to more fully explore clean, renewable power at costs unavailable through PSE.
“Washington state is a net exporter of power,” Grant observed. “The PUD has access to some of the cheapest and cleanest electricity in the entire country.”
“Let’s start by offering two customers access to this power,” she laughed.
Kitsap PUD, long the dominant provider of water to county residents, recently expanded its role to provide retail high-speed internet and telecommunication services in areas underserved by cable providers.
As public agencies, PUDs can be highly responsive to community interests. An elected board of commissioners charged with setting rates and making strategic decisions holds open meetings to discuss plans and solicits public input. As a result, some PUDs are leaders in implementing innovative new projects.
Other PUDs are less active—even moribund.
Despite long being empowered as a full-service utility in ways Kitsap and Jefferson voters were required to freshly create through initiative, Whatcom PUD No. 1 has been relatively quiet, and even left behind in innovative proposals.
“For the past five years I have worked with rural electric cooperatives across the country on everything from billing and rate design to utility truck selections to the grid impacts of electric vehicles,” Grant said. “One of the most eye-opening things for me is that many of these rural electric cooperatives are doing very innovative things with demand-response, financing energy efficiency and reducing carbon emissions. But their primary interest is in keeping rates low—because they are owned by the members.”
The failures of Whatcom PUD have not been for a lack of trying, or from the absence of innovative ideas.
Bellingham developer Jeff McClure, running against Grant in this election, originally ran on a concept to inventory the PUD’s water capacity and serve that resource to businesses in a manner that was cost-effective. He is seeking another six-year term, his third.
Atul Deshmane was elected in 2019 to serve on the PUD commission, campaigning on an enormous range of ideas for the delivery of broadband capacity and cleaner, cost-effective power. In 2019, Deshmane was appointed to the Energy Northwest board of directors, where he can help shape policy.
The third commissioner, Michael Murphy, was elected in 1998 and has served on the PUD commission for nearly 22 years.
Grant sketched a number of potential activities in each of the PUD’s areas—power, water and circling back to telecommunication services.
“PUDs can provide open access to fiber that’s not commonly available to internet service providers, who then can lease that fiber” in a public-private partnership, Grant explained. “In the case of Kitsap, if there isn’t a private provider available, the PUD can step in and deliver that service.
“One of the key things to understand is that fiber is the form of internet infrastructure that much of the developed world already has,” she said. “It is fiber-to-the-premises that really gives value to people and businesses. The communities that have been able to provide broadband access have shown there are tremendous economic gains.
“There’s a lot changing in this particular area of broadband access from a regulatory perspective, and from the state Legislature. If we’re nimble,” she observed, noting that Whatcom PUD has not assigned a commissioner to the state association of PUDs’ communications group for many years.
“That’s how disinterested the commission has been in even tracking what’s going on.
“In order to move forward, we’re going to have to think about issues in innovative ways,” Grant said. “One of my philosophies is to invent as many options for mutual gain as possible. So I think we need commissioners who are willing to go into the PUD who will bring everyone to the table, work with everyone at the table, and try to create new solutions.
“It’s a three-person commission, and the culture of long commission terms at the PUD is part of the problem,” she said. “We have an opportunity to bring in new minds and talent that represents the future of the PUD.”
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