The PUD

‘Tis the stuff of democracy, right? People stand for election and we, the voters, decide who will represent us. In the larger races, say for U.S. Senate, we may simply choose our party’s candidate. In local elections most of us know little about the issues and even less about who should hold office.

I happen to be at the end of my second six-year term as an elected commissioner for a public utility district, Snohomish County PUD, specifically. Surveys suggest that many citizens of the county and Camano Island, which is also served by the utility, lack even a basic understanding of PUDs and how they are governed. They do know, more likely than not, that the utility delivers electricity. Fewer know that it also purveys water to particular areas.

PUDs, if you’re wondering, are unique institutions born of the New Deal as a reaction to large, privately owned and managed cartels, typically national holding companies, that confined service to urban centers. If you lived on a farm or in a rural area you, too, could have electricity—provided you were willing and able to pay for extending distribution lines from the city to the country. Way back in the 30s Washington state voters passed Initiative No. 1 that allowed for citizen-governed local utility districts. The legislature eventually heeded the wishes of the people, establishing the relevant laws and procedures under Title 54. Gradually, various counties throughout the state held votes to determine if their respective residents would be served by public or private power. Snohomish County said yes to a PUD.

Unlike investor-owned utilities, public utility districts are governed by a three-member board as determined by the people. Each of us serves a staggered six-year term. My position is up this year. Two years hence a colleague will also face re-election.

On occasion, the entire complexion of the board changes, generally in reaction to one or more crises. During the 70s the SnoPUD board at the time went all in for nuclear power. Many will recall “Whoops,” an apt sobriquet for the Washington Public Power Supply System, a truly off-the charts initiative to build and operate five or more nuclear power plants in the state of Washington. Dramatically escalating costs led to abandonment of all but one plant, which continues to operate east of the Cascades. Those costs raised local electricity rates five-fold along with citizens’ tempers. One by one, the board was replaced.

Then came the West Coast energy debacle at the turn of the century. It, too, caused rates to soar, leading to a change of board members, of which I was a part.

Since I assumed office in 2003, the PUD waters have calmed. Coincidence, perhaps, though I like to believe that I had something to do with moving the utility from crisis to stability. Along the way, I should add, the PUD has gained even international recognition for its pioneering efforts in tidal energy and, soon, electricity storage. That recognition also garnered significant financial support from the state and the federal government.

When I ran that first time in 2002, there were six candidates, including the incumbent. He lost out in the primary, a casualty of the Enron-dominated debacle. I won the general election in convincing fashion, despite well-funded opposition. Six years later, with the utility now set on a prudent course, I was challenged by an individual who admitted that he ran only that I should have an opponent. Again, I prevailed.

I filed for re-election this past Monday. I learned this morning that I will have at least one opponent, a person with whom I’m unfamiliar. I will likely discover his reasons for running in the near future.

I’ve suggested that board members are deposed in response to perceived crisis. One was WPPSS. A second was Enron. Both involved power supply, and both resulted in substantial rate hikes. There is nothing at all similar this time around. Indeed, by all accounts the utility is operating as well as any in the country.

Customer bills are lower in real dollars than they were over 20 years ago. The utility’s integrated resource plan charts a clear course for serving current and future customers. In addition to electricity supplied by the Bonneville Power Administration, the PUD relies on conservation, first and foremost, followed by renewable energy resources, including wind, solar, small hydro, and biomass. As I mentioned above, the utility is actively pursuing tidal energy, storage solutions, and geothermal. The PUD has established financial reserves to meet unforeseen circumstances, which the utility strives to eliminate in the first place. And we keep the lights on.

In short, the Snohomish County Public Utility District is doing extremely well, without issues. So, on what basis would someone challenge? As I said, we’re sure to find out soon enough.

Meanwhile, I have set up a campaign website to discuss the PUD in much more detail as we move closer to elections. I invite comments, questions, and suggestions.

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