California ruined its own electric market, now ours

Still don’t know what you want for Christmas? May we suggest stock in polar fleece and Presto logs? If Thursday’s Herald front page headline announcing a 33 percent surge in PUD rates didn’t make your heart freeze over, your first bill after Jan. 1 just might.

Snohomish County residential, commercial and industrial PUD customers aren’t the only ones reeling from the news. People throughout the West are being impacted by problems with the electric market. Energy became an issue the last couple weeks of the presidential campaign (you know, the one that just ended two days ago) but didn’t get enough attention to register on most people’s list of priorities. Who could blame voters for focusing on other issues such as Medicare and prescription drug costs looming?

The argument that "we’ve been lucky so far" to pay less than the national average for electricity isn’t going to mean a thing to people who can barely, if at all, afford to pay their heating and electricity bills right now. It will be of little comfort to commercial businesses and industrial businesses whose monthly bills range from $5,500 to $102,000.

Many might be tempted to blame Snohomish County PUD. After all, someone has to take the fall for this situation, right? While there will certainly be some sorting out to do in the weeks ahead, it appears our utility — like others — is caught in the middle of a much larger mess created by nature and California. Cold, dry weather means our region’s hydroelectric facilities aren’t producing as much as usual. That’s a problem right there. Add to it California’s self-induced energy crisis and the finger-pointing may be just about complete.

Because California botched its deregulation efforts, the state isn’t sending us any power this winter — although it gladly accepted our power in the summer. To add insult to injury, U.S. Energy Secretary Bill Richardson announced Wednesday that some Northwest generators would be ordered to sell power to California at a price he deemed fair. It might sound like a logical solution to California’s long term problem, but Richardson may have just brought down the Pacific Northwest.

Back at home, PUD is looking for ways to help customers who have difficulty paying their bills, said PUD spokesman Neil Neroutsos. PUD is explaining to customers how this all came about and what options people might have. Programs like Project Pride, which is administered by the Red Cross, and other low-income programs in collaboration with the county are still available. But the bottom line is everyone is going to be paying more.

The hike rate may not go in to effect until Jan. 1 but now is the time for PUD, other elected officials and other organizations to put their collective brains together and come up with solutions. PUD commissioners sent letters this week to President Clinton and the chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission seeking help for the entire West, not just California. Richardson’s demands this week suggest the letters could fall on deaf ears. Still, Richardson appears to be paying more attention to price concerns voiced by Gov. Gary Locke.

It seems President Clinton and Richardson forgot that prescription drug costs were a hot issue this election, especially in Washington where many of our senior citizens are packing buses and heading to Canada to buy much needed medicine. If Clinton doesn’t act effectively to correct this situation, he risks leaving a legacy in our state of forcing seniors to choose between food, medicine and heat.

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