Sound Off: Island needs its own PUD

Puget Sound Energy’s chief executive was “compensated” to the tune of $2,980,000 in just 2005. That’s a lot of dollars. And we can all see what a good job he’s doing. I’m not being sarcastic – he is! It’s just that his job is to make money for the stockholders of Puget Energy. That’s the holding company that owns Puget Sound Energy. And how does this regulated monopoly maximize its profit? By minimizing its service. And that’s exactly what Puget Energy has done since taking over the old Puget Power.

They sold off Langley’s backup generator for quick cash to a resort in the Bahamas. They told us the new looped main line would make the generator unnecessary. Puget Energy also closed the local office and laid off all the local crews. Instead, it just contracts it all out. So when a crew is needed on the island, we can compete with all the other power companies bidding for the same crew. When there’s a major regional storm, instead of having a crew dedicated to the island, we can take a number and get in line. It doesn’t look like Puget Energy has any in-house employees anymore. Even the meter readers are contract employees now.

It’s cheaper that way, at least for Puget Energy. After all, when the power goes out Puget Energy doesn’t have to pay for the thousands (if not millions) of dollars in spoiled food, lost business, medical emergencies, etc.

And don’t worry about Puget Energy paying the price because of the windstorms. It gets 60 days to tell the Utilities and Transportation Commission how much it wants to charge us for the expense. I can’t wait. I’m sure PSE will include the full page ads it ran in every western Washington newspaper thanking us for our patience.

So, what can we do about this sorry state of affairs? We can form a Public Utility District, buy the power lines and place them underground.

Overhead lines are unreliable and ugly. The Netherlands has all its low and medium voltage lines underground. Six European countries have over 50 percent of their low and medium voltage lines underground. When lifetime costs are taken into account as well as other advantages of underground cables, these latter can be considered as a feasible solution for a number of cases, e.g. in urban areas, in areas with high aesthetic value, in cases requiring increased security of supply in critical sections of electricity networks (as underground cables are not affected by adverse weather conditions such as wind, snow, ice, etc).

For example, the storms of December 1999 in France destroyed significant parts of the French electricity system causing a lot of blackouts. As a result, the French authorities decided to follow a new policy of undergrounding significant parts of their electricity system in order to secure supply availability under adverse weather conditions. (Commission of the European Communities. Background Paper: Undergrounding of Electricity Lines in Europe. Brussels, Dec. 2003.)

So, would it be too expensive to underground the low and medium voltage power lines on Whidbey? Another report for the European Commission (Overview of the Potential for Undergrounding the Electricity Networks in Europe) states:

“The capital cost of underground cables at voltages up to 90kV are estimated to be around 2 times more expensive than aerial lines; at voltages of 225kV the estimate is around 3 times more expensive.” It’s the really big lines that cost 10 times more to underground, but that’s not where most of the power outages are triggered. Most are because a tree, branch, or bird hits a line. And the cost of installing the line, whether overhead or underground, is only a fraction of what our electric bills pay for. The same report, based on studies in France, Italy, the UK, and Australia estimated the percentage increases in consumer rates for undergrounding: 16, 1, 3 for domestic and 9 percent for industrial power, and “an undergrounding project over 30 years would be cost neutral with a consumer levy of approximately Euro 1 per week.”

So where can the money come from? A petition of 10 percent of the voters would allow us to vote to form a public utility district. As a public utility district, we wouldn’t be paying $3 million executive compensation packages. And we wouldn’t be paying shareholders. We, the people, could buy the power system on Whidbey Island from Puget Energy.

We could divert the bloated “compensation” of Puget Energy’s chief executive and the profit that goes to the shareholders into things that benefit us: system reliability, undergrounding the lines, distributed generation, and conservation.

Steve Erickson lives

in Langley