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PUD enlists candidates

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Names to appear on November ballot

Pat Harmon, an Oak Harbor resident, has pledged to run as a commissioner for a potential public utility district which will be voted on this November.

People for Yes on Whidbey PUD recently held informational meetings across the island to pinpoint qualified locals. Harmon was a former commissioner in Alaska and worked nine years at city-owned Municipal Light and Power.

“I’m intrigued by the group’s idea,” he said.

The group, lead by David Metheny, calls for the censure of Bellevue-based Puget Sound Energy, following months of public debate over the $7.4 billion merger between PSE and the Macquarie Consortium, an international investment group.

PSE said the merger will help fund needed infrastructure, yet Metheny worries it could raise electricity rates.

PUDs can attain huge savings from the Bonneville Power Administration by purchasing electricity at cost, Harmon said, but he doesn’t know if that will be enough to offset the economic scale of PSE.

Gretchen Aliabadi, spokesperson for Puget Sound Energy said, “The condemnation of PSE isn’t just purchasing a bunch of wires and poles.”

The company owns 10 substations on the island, with two parallel transmission feeds beginning at March Point. Consulting engineer Kit Maret estimated the cost for a new substation at between $4 to $10 million.

In recent months, PUDs in Jefferson and Skagit County have dueled with PSE over the issue of local ownership through consultant studies. A PSE study, conducted by Bob Bellemare of Utilipoint, said the cost of acquiring property would cost upwards of $72 million in Jefferson County and $1 billion in Skagit County. The burden would increase customer rates by 20 percent in Skagit.

A Utilipoint study for Island County is still in progress.

“We expect it will be somewhere between the two. Jefferson serves about 19,000 customers, Skagit serves 59,000 and Island County serves 34,000,” Aliabadi said.

However, Harmon said no neutral third party information will be released until after the election. If a taxing authority is passed, commissioners would be able to pay for their own study.

Metheny’s group counters that PSE’s $5 billion debt load and mediocre credit rating will raise rates, giving a PUD a long-term, while not short-term, advantage.

Harmon is also dissatisfied with PSE’s reliability, referring to the company’s track record of responding to outages. If voted commissioner, he would look into modernizing the grid.

“PSE has better urban distribution than rural distribution. I think they’re getting tired of Whidbey after the money they’ve spent on storm damage,” he said. “Hopefully a PUD would have a friendly takeover.”

A tour of the PSE facilities Thursday revealed there are vulnerable points in the feeds, in areas where the poles are closely aligned. But that’s due to the long, skinny shape of the island, Maret said.

PSE has plans to trim back vegetation, where they have rights to so, in upcoming years.

Company officials said it’s a slow process to restore energy after a serious storm because it becomes a safety concern when a large section of the system goes down. Breakers will stop power if a tree falls on a line. First responders, who live on the island or are divvied up from off-island crews, are sent out to review damage.

They then manually close the switch, or return power, to areas after careful inspection.

“We don’t want to kill people in haste,” Maret said.

Dan Schlangen, the owner of Rockhopper Coffee in Clinton, loses hundreds of dollars in goods every couple years due to power outages. He’s considering running as a commissioner in his area.

His free time is spent researching alternative energy such as wind and tidal power. He said a PUD could get better bond rates than PSE.

“A commercial entity must make a profit and answer to stockholders, not citizens. They wouldn’t have the incentive to look at green power because the return takes so long to pay back,” he said.

However, Dominador Amor, community relations director for PSE, said that with a big company, the leverage to stretch dollars on these programs is there. There are already 633 residential Green Power customers on Whidbey Island.

Schlangen said there is only one chance to proceed with a PUD. When asked about possibly butting heads with Puget Sound Energy in court, he responded, “If they’re spending millions of dollars to keep customers in this area, that says to me there is a lot of potential for savings,” he said.

But he doesn’t believe in change for the sake of change. It must be a better system, he said.

Harmon shares the sentiment.

“If the business model doesn’t work, then we’ll dissolve it. But we have so many problems with the system we have now that it’s worth investigating,” he said.

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