PERSPECTIVE: PUD: On the bright side, we're greener than PSE by far

By Ken Collins Marrowstone Island
Posted 3/29/16

Jefferson County’s Public Utility District (PUD) has come a long way in three years and will continue to change significantly over the next three years.

Going from an organization with 5,000 …

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PERSPECTIVE: PUD: On the bright side, we're greener than PSE by far

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Jefferson County’s Public Utility District (PUD) has come a long way in three years and will continue to change significantly over the next three years.

Going from an organization with 5,000 water and a few hundred sewage customers to serving an additional 18,500 electrical customers has not been easy.

Conservative attitudes about adding staff and containing costs have gradually yielded to the reality of what it takes to run a reliable and responsive utility serving four times the number of customers. Providing electrical power in a region that gets repeatedly whacked by coastal storms requires an emergency response capability that neither water nor sewer services rarely require. The recent PUD survey, which one in five customers completed, contained 100 pages of written comments. Customers remain ambivalent about whether the PUD should have taken over the electrical utility and there is a widely shared, but inaccurate, perception that the PUD has increased its rates. These are issues that need to be put in perspective.

It is understandable that many customers believe that rates have increased.

Billing, during the initial months following the PUD takeover from Puget Sound Energy (PSE), was a mess. Billing cycles were uneven, creating higher-than-normal bills, and there were hundreds of errors. As of last November, the PUD implemented a far more sophisticated billing system, which is designed to integrate all the PUD’s financial processes and provide customers with a range of services that the old system wasn’t capable of doing.

Over the past three years, the PUD base rate charge for electricity has remained at $7.49 for residential customers, which is one of the lowest service rates in the state. The cost per KiloWattHour has also not changed from $.085 for up to 600 KWH and $.104 for usage above 600 KWH per month.

GREENER BY FAR

Currently, the cost of electricity provided by the PUD is less than what is now being charged by PSE and well below the national average of $.105 per KWH. Electricity in Jefferson County is now much greener than what had previously been provided. According to the December 2015 Fuel Mix Report released by the Washington State Department of Commerce, Jefferson PUD is now effectively 98 percent green, getting 88 percent of its power from hydro and 10 percent from nuclear, compared to PSE, which is 45 percent green, relying heavily on coal and natural gas. Washington State as a whole is 72 percent renewable.

Going forward, the PUD will have to consider increasing rates. For one thing, the cost of PUD electricity, purchased from Bonneville Power Authority, has gone up 6 percent. For the past three years, the PUD has operated very conservatively, with a number of key positions being unfilled and some employees with multiple functions. This is neither an efficient nor a sustainable situation.

In the months ahead, the PUD will be hiring a controller to assist the finance manager, a human resource manager who will also handle communications, an electrical engineer and a conservation/weatherization specialist.

Over the next three years, money will need to be spent to upgrade an aging infrastructure, outdated and inaccurate meters will need to be replaced, and more tree trimming will need to be done to decrease outages when the winds blow again. The PUD Board of Commissioners is currently studying the issue of rates and reviewing consultant recommendations.

GRADUAL INCREASES SEEN

Speaking as an individual commissioner, I foresee gradual increases, spread over several years, rather than a dramatic, single-year increase.

Over the next three years, Jefferson PUD may offer the option of community solar to customers who cannot install a system on their homes due to location and/or cost. Other PUDs have sold shares of community solar, which paid for all the construction costs up front, without having to borrow or dip into cash reserves.

Within this same timeframe, Jefferson PUD will assume administrative responsibility for the broadband system currently run by NoaNet. This will provide an opportunity to partner with local internet service providers and expand access to high-speed internet in areas of the county that are currently unserved or underserved.

While the PUD may venture into community solar and broadband, incrementally and cautiously, the mission of the PUD remains to provide reliable, responsive and affordable service to our customers. Thanks for your patience and support.

(Kenneth Collins is currently president of the Jefferson County PUD Board of Commissioners. He was elected in 2014 to a six-year term. He is co-owner of Marrowstone Vineyards, after retiring from a 40-year career as a mental health and human resources professional.)

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