Public power is a Northwest touchstone. Scrutinize its history and our region’s long narrative of fair play, public interest and populism is revealed. A public-need resource concentrated in the hands of private interests? That notion was antithetical to Westerners, although it took until 1936 before Snohomish County voters gave Public Utility District No. 1 the thumbs up.
Today, the Snohomish County PUD is a template for public utilities nationwide. It’s a massive operation, serving nearly 300,000 residential customers and 20,000-plus water users. Eighty-one percent of the juice comes from the Bonneville Power Administration and the rest, a smattering of regional hydro and other renewables. The drive for renewable sources was accelerated with the 2006 passage of Initiative 937 which requires larger utilities to get 15 percent of their electricity from solar, geothermal, wind, and other sustainable methods by 2020 (no hydro, however.) And it’s hydropower, curiously enough, that defines this year’s PUD race between longtime commissioner Kathy Vaughn and challenger Eric Teegarden.
Vaughn, the commission president who was first elected in 1995, supports studying the Sunset Falls project, a proposed 30-megawatt facility on the Skykomish River, one mile outside of Index. Advocates point to the proposal’s innovative weir-style design, its proximity to existing transmission lines, and the potential to tap a resource that aligns with Washington’s winter-peak load (Solar and wind are more intermittent.)
Teegarden, a systems engineer and solar-energy maven who challenged Vaughn six years ago, is a Sunset Falls skeptic. Like other small-hydro critics, Teegarden is incredulous about building a dam rather than investing in cutting-edge sources such as solar and geothermal. The issue is complex — even whether Sunset Falls qualifies as a conventional dam — and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has only issued a preliminary permit to “study and assess” the project’s feasibility.
Vaughn and Teegarden find common cause on the question of conservation, and no utility in the country has been in the vanguard of energy savings more than the SnoCo PUD. Projects include the “Light it up!” bulb exchange, home weatherization, and appliance recycling. The utility’s Solar Express Program (a Teegarden favorite and something he said he advocated for before its inception) offers cash incentives to homeowners who install solar photovoltaic or solar hot water systems.
Based on her background and leadership at the commission, Kathy Vaughn has earned re-election to another term. The Herald Editorial Board hopes that Eric Teegarden continues his yeoman’s work advocating for innovation, renewable energy, and his community. Teegarden’s brainstorm to increase the number of PUD commissioners — an idea consistent with the utility’s public mission — also merits serious consideration. It’s the idea guy versus the tested public servant and, for the Herald Editorial Board, the tested public servant gets the nod.