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Power to the people

Whidbey Island activists are trying to put a stop to Puget Sound Energy’s power monopoly by creating a public utility district.

Last month, PSE sent a notice in bills announcing plans to raise prices and also to go private with foreign investors in Canada and Australia. Right now, PSE is a publicly-traded company.

The news triggered a response from David Metheny, the campaign director of “People for Yes on Whidbey PUD.” His personal history with PSE blew a fuse in 2006 when power on South Whidbey was out for several days.

“My parents are old folks and it was harder on them. I put in several calls to the company and one agent said, ‘Why don’t you form a PUD?’ That stuck with me,” he said.

As a paralegal student a year later, he decided to study PUDs for his administrative law class. He found it was complex to create a PUD, but it could be done.

Around the same time, Bob Kuehn was writing letters to the editor complaining about PSE.

“I looked him up in the phone book and asked him to join me and three other people in starting something,” Metheny said.

Weeks ago, the group began a petition drive to get a measure on the ballot for the general election in November. Metheny said it will allow voters to decide if they want to locally control their energy or if they want to continue service with Bellevue-based PSE, which is being purchased by Canadian investors.

They need 2,392 signatures from registered voters on the island by July 4 to get the issue on the ballot.

Metheny described PUDs as non-profit utilities owned by the community, not by stockholders. Consequently, district rates are generally lower.

Of the 30,000 environmentally-friendly, “green-collar” jobs Gov. Christine Gregoire wants for the state, 500 could exist on the island with the help of PUDs, he said.

“It’s a great opportunity for this little island to expand beyond this narrow, precipitous economic ledge,” he said

Under federal law, the Bonneville Power Administration is required to sell power to PUDs at a lower, at-cost rate. Because PSE is investor-owned, it can’t get the same deal, Dean Boyer, spokesperson for the Washington PUD Association, said Friday.

“Why we are seeing so many grassroots efforts today is in response to PSE’s decision to go with foreign investors. People want to maintain local control of power,” Boyer said. “With local control comes local accountability.”

PSE spokeswoman Gretchen Aliabadi said gaining access to the less-expensive BPA power may sound good, but it is a several year process. A PUD must first establish itself as a recognized electrical utility, which means putting the proposal to an additional community vote. Then comes purchasing the electrical facilities.

“Once people peel back the layers and look at the cost of this system, maintaining this system, finding the technical expertise for this system, they’ll see PSE is more cost effective,” Aliabadi said.

She said that PSE’s upcoming merger with foreign investors will bring in $5 billion for the region to meet green power demands and deal with inflation. The cost of transformers are up 48 percent in today’s economy.

Metheny said he worries the debt from PSE’s loan to replace power plants could fall on customers rather than investors.

PSE has not responded directly to Metheny’s movement, something that makes him nervous, but he believes there will be litigation.

Threats of lawsuits occurred in Jefferson and Skagit counties for similar PUD efforts, he said. Since 1931, the company has fought PUDs with public relations campaigns.

Aliabadi said that until the Whidbey group mobilizes and the issue appears on the ballot, nothing can be done.

“We respect that the community is looking at its options; we’re just providing information,” Aliabadi said.

Currently, there are 28 PUD’s operating in Washington State, and Metheny said the history of PUD success makes him confident there’s room for one more on Whidbey.

“The community has, overall, been positive. There’s been quite a bit of insecurity around energy; maybe it’s because of the gas prices rising so much,” Metheny said. “In the future, I think PUDs make sense.”

For more information about “People for Yes on Whidbey PUD” visit www.whidbeypud.org.

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