Sound Off: Pay lots more with a PUD

I got a really good laugh when I opened the editorial page Feb. 17 and saw, once again, that our resident Head WEANie (Steve Erickson) had grabbed the Whidbey News-Times by the headlines to tilt at his next windmill.

Steve’s most recent successful tilt was to save us from the cows. I don’t have words to express my gratitude for the results he achieved on that go ‘round. Every morning I drive by the remnants of the Muzzall farm. Trees are being cut, land platted for new homes, what an improvement over the mooing, corn rows and native wildlife!

Now he wants us to go European with our power system. If it’s his idea I say thanks, but no thanks right from the get-go. One of the scariest things I can imagine is him sitting in the audience of the newly formed Whidbey PUD spouting his rhetoric and making demands with the ever-ready lawsuit in his back pocket. Can you imagine what that would cost us?

What he didn’t bother to tell you about European electricity could fill the entire next newspaper, some good and just as much bad.

Some examples: Greece has rates that are somewhat close to ours here in the Northwest, four European countries pay about twice, four more pay about three times and a few pay four times what we do (there’s a deal).

Europe’s vaunted underground system was rebuilt essentially en-masse in the years following WWII and it’s now 40-plus years old. There are some real hard logistic and fiscal decisions to be made in the next 10 to 15 years how they are going to replace an overage distribution system that is essentially falling apart all at the same time. Current estimates are in the trillions.

European power production (especially France) has a much higher percentage of cheap and clean nuclear production, something that Mr. Erickson and his ilk have effectively eliminated over here. Yet, our rates are still reasonable. (Nuclear is the number one reason why their rates aren’t six or more times ours.) Can you imagine a power bill that is 4 or 6 times what you are paying now?

Mr. Erickson, south end residents live on the wrong end of a 75-mile long extension cord that is plugged in on the east side of Sedro-Woolley. Along the way, that cord passes through some of the tallest trees in the U.S., over rivers, over Deception Pass and winds it way through more trees on its way to the south end of Whidbey. It may be an eyesore and it is vulnerable to wind but undergrounding 75 miles of transmission and 300 miles of distribution is just not a viable option. Who’s going to pay for it?

Your panacea of a Whidbey PUD to solve all the problems should be relegated to the trash heap of really stupid ideas. Why? It’s simple. It’s how the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission sets rates for utilities like PSE.

In a nutshell, PSE has to charge all of its customers the same, no matter where they live in the system. Point Roberts is the prime example, PSE loses its shirt there. They buy power from BC Hydro at residential rates and re-sell it to the people of Point Roberts at a tremendous loss. Whidbey is in the same boat but not quite so badly.

Coming up with an exact figure of what should be charged to Whidbey residents to supply electricity is something only PSE could answer but essentially it can be summed up in one word, density. PSE uses the term customer mile. Simply put, there are many more customers per mile in places like King and Pierce County than there are on Whidbey. The end result is that people in King County subsidize the users here on Whidbey and especially in Point Roberts by paying more than they should (distribution efficiency) so we pay less (distribution inefficiency) than it actually costs to get the power to us.

If the collective wisdom of the people of Island County (now we have to drag Snohomish County PUD into it because they serve Camano) exerts itself and forms a PUD, we could really find ourselves on the short end of the stick paying the real cost vice the subsidized cost. Add to that your pipe dream of burying all the lines and we would have some of the highest (if not the highest) power rates in the entire nation.

Lastly, undergrounding distribution lines in a city is smart, I have to agree. But once you leave the density of a city where the lines can be looped and customers are many, most advantages of underground are quickly trumped by the exorbitant costs incurred.

In the end we probably would experience fewer outages, that would remain to be seen. I do know, however, that the exorbitant costs incurred to have fewer outages would quickly fill any number of refrigerators or freezers.

No matter how undergrounding would come to pass, I know that in the end I’d be paying for it. Personally, I’d rather replace ruined food once in a blue moon than experience the alternative.

The true irony in this entire brouhaha is that PSE would still be providing power to Whidbey and Snohomish PUD would still feed Camano.

Go figure.

Scott Smith lives in Oak Harbor.