Published January 2001

New year begins with jolt as electricity rates surge

By Kathy Day
Herald Economy Writer

Under a measure adopted by Snohomish County PUD commissioners, commercial customers will pay 38.5 percent more for electricity and industrial users will pay 41 percent more beginning this month.Residential customers will pay 33 percent more for their electricity ó $22 on an average monthly bill of $63.

Faced with mounting losses from escalating power costs and the need to maintain a reserve for bond payments, the PUDís three board members agreed Dec. 13 that a rate increase was a necessary evil. While officials said fears of an imminent power shortage had ended, PUD Commissioner Kathy Vaughn said the financial fallout continues.

Commissioner Don Berkey said the district needs to ďsend a strong message: Turn off your lights and save energy.Ē Commissioner Cynthia First said she wants the district to ďaccelerate public discussion on new generation. I donít think conservation is the total answer.Ē She asked for a staff report on the subject, to be completed this month.

The districtís financial staff arrived at the varying rate hikes through a formula that will be applied only to the actual amount of electricity used. The increase will affect schools, cities, state and county facilities as well as area businesses.

The PUD, which buys some of its power on the open market, was pushed into the corner by circumstances that are wreaking havoc with the electric market throughout the West, officials have said. Pressures from cold, dry weather have reduced output from the regionís hydroelectric facilities, including the PUDís Jackson Hydroelectric Plant, which expects to produce 40 percent less power through March than projected.

Further muddying the water is the situation in California, which normally ships power north during the winter. But because that state is in the throes of an unsuccessful experiment with deregulation and is facing shortages of its own, no power is coming this way. Combine all of that with growing demand and the fact that little has been done to construct new generating facilities, and PUD managers and staff say they had little choice but to call for a big rate increase.

During his explanation of the PUDís predicament, Assistant General Manager Glenn McPherson noted that based on November prices, which tripled from a year ago, a 16 percent rate hike would leave the district $12 million short. At last monthís prices ó triple those of November ó a 35 percent increase leaves the district with a $38 million shortage, a smaller reserve and no money for debt service or a rate cushion, McPherson said.

If power costs drop back to November levels, a 35 percent hike would raise net income to $45 million and put $57 million in the rate fund, as well as cover the debt service requirements and restore a cash balance. If necessary, the commissioners could initiate another hike if the new rates donít make up for the losses, or decrease rates if the picture improves.

What the commission didnít deal with during last monthís meetings is the as yet unknown increase in power costs that will come from the districtís next contract with the Bonneville Power Administration. In the early fall, commissioners were talking about potential increases of 3 percent to 4 percent for each of the next three years. But now they want to wait for more specific information before addressing the BPA situation.

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