EVERETT — For the first time in five years, electricity rates will likely go up for customers of the Snohomish County Public Utilities District.
On Dec. 7, the PUD Board of Commissioners approved a general 2.1% increase as part of the 2022 budget.
That’s down from the district’s initial projections. As recently as summer, PUD leaders were suggesting a 2.5% increase.
Commissioners will decide how that overall increase applies to specific customers at a Jan. 4 meeting. It would take effect on April 1.
A lot of people may not notice the increase on their bills, PUD spokesperson Aaron Swaney said, thanks to higher-than-expected benefit payments the PUD is receiving from the Bonneville Power Administration’s residential exchange program. Those credits from the administration are passed on to residential customers and should essentially cancel out the higher rates for most people, Swaney said.
In an interview with The Daily Herald, chief financial officer Scott Jones came to the same conclusion.
“Garden variety bills for garden variety homes are going to have a very de minimis impact,” he said.
(A small Latin lesson: de minimis means something is so minor as to merit disregard.)
Jones, who became chief financial officer in January 2020, said the district has focused on keeping rates stable for years.
“The district has had a long history of being … in a very financially stable place,” Jones said.
He said to expect small increases in future years. Those will have to go through other rounds of approval.
The increases are to prepare the PUD for the years to come, according to a budget presentation. The first should add about $11 million in revenue for the PUD.
The board approved $670 million in expenditures for the PUD’s electric system, including some big ticket capital expenses:
• $34.5 million will go toward the development of Connect Up, the PUD’s “smart meter” program.
• $28.6 million to projects for customers, such as line extensions, street lighting and the Sound Transit Lynnwood Extension.
• $28.2 million to replace old or worn equipment, like wood poles, cables and transformers.
• $17.2 million for electric system expansion projects.
• $14 million for construction of the North County Community Office.
• $9.9 million for vehicle replacements and additions.
A lot of planning goes into the PUD’s budget, because it has to predict an uncertain future. Day to day, staff have to figure out whether there’s enough energy for everyone, or if they have to buy some off the market. That means they have to account for Mother Nature’s curveballs. And this year had a couple doozies: A record-breaking heatwave in the summer, some big windstorms in the fall and a very, very wet November.
A windstorm in October knocked out power for over 30,000 people. But by the next day, PUD crews got electricity back up and running for most people. That’s a huge improvement from even a decade or so ago, Swaney said. Before, in a storm like that, many customers would have been without power for days.
Making the system resilient against storms and being able to get power back up quickly are priorities for the PUD, Jones said.
“We have very large trees out here in the Pacific Northwest,” Jones said.
COVID-19 also caused an unexpected change: Less energy going to commercial buildings and more to residential customers, as more people worked from home.
Hold-ups in the supply chain are clouding the PUD’s crystal ball, too. For example, transformers, one of the building blocks of any utility, are getting more expensive and taking longer to arrive.
“Like a lot of utilities, there’s a tremendous amount of uncertainty in that space right now,” Jones said. “That’s causing us to take a bit more of a conservative posture when it comes to the financial stability and the reserves of the company.”
And the PUD has a lot of things to maintain and replace. In all, it has more than 96,000 transformers, 131,000 wood and metal poles, and 369,000 meters — just to name a few examples.
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