Puget Sound Energy is the biggest obstacle to reducing Thurston County’s CO2 emissions rapidly in the next decade. Its current energy mix is 37% from coal and 22% from natural gas, for a total of 59% from fossil fuels. Although PSE will have paid off the debt on its Colstrip coal plant by 2027, its 20 year Integrated Resource Plan indicates that it plans to run the plant through 2035 and replace diminished coal use with natural gas. (Macquire Capital, the Australian company which owns PSE, also owns one of the largest gas companies in the US). PSE’s 20 year plan will lock Thurston County and its other customers into decades of fossil fuel use.
A survey done by Johnson and Samstag of Friends of Island Power (Bainbridge Island) in 2014 found that PSE produces over 11 million tons of carbon pollution per year, massively more than any other utility in Washington State. PSE’s rates are among the highest in the state, 25% above state average and its reliability is terrible, with 628 outage minutes in Kitsap County, and 686 outage minutes in Bainbridge Island compared to 126 outage minutes or Snohomish PUD and 39 outage minutes for Port Angeles Light.
We have alternatives
We can expand the Thurston County PUD which now operates water systems, to include electrical service. A 2012 initiative to do just that failed in the county by a vote of 40.65% for to 50.34% against; but within the limits of the City of Olympia, it failed by only one vote. We can revisit the initiative process in 2020 to expand our PUD’s jurisdiction to include a functioning electric utility powered by renewable energy.
Or, we can persuade the City of Olympia or another city—Lacey, Tumwater or Yelm—to develop and operate a municipal electric utility powered by renewable energy. Pursuant to RCW 35.92.050, each of our cities and towns has the authority to develop and operate an electric utility to serve their inhabitants and “other persons.” They can also cooperate to develop a joint electric utility. In other words, one or more cities could form an electric utility to serve all of Thurston County. This can be done without an election.
Because they have the power of eminent domain, PUDs and cities can legally acquire Puget Sound Energy’s electric facilities through condemnation proceedings, which tend to be lengthy, or by negotiating with PSE in lieu of condemnation proceedings. Once they have acquired or have a contract to acquire electric lines and facilities, they have a preferential right to purchase low cost hydropower from the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA). “Public bodies,” like PUDs and municipal utilities, are entitled to both preference and priority for purchase of that power pursuant to the Bonneville Project Act and the Northwest Power Act. The BPA also sells public utilities low cost power from other clean energy sources such as solar and wind.
Our immediate neighbors, Tacoma, Centralia, Chehalis, and Mason County already benefit from low cost electricity derived primarily from fossil free sources. Here are the 2016 fuel mixes for public electric utilities near Olympia as shown in the Washington State Electric Utility Fuel Mix Disclosure Reports:
Tacoma Power, 87% fossil free with 84.23% hydroelectric, 10% nuclear, and 1% biomass;
Centralia City Light, 98.61% fossil free with 90.6% hydro, 7.9% nuclear, and 0.008% biomass;
Lewis County PUD in Chehalis, 94.66% fossil free with 83.58% hydro, 10.51% nuclear and 0.567% wind;
Mason County PUD,1, 98.16% fossil free with 87.79% hydro, 10.27% nuclear, and 0.10% biomass;
Mason County PUD 3, 97.52% fossil free, with 78.73% hydro, 10.12% nuclear, and 9.21% wind.
The news about climate change is increasingly grim. A recent study from the University of Leeds, NASA and the European Space Agency shows that feedback loops have contributed to tripling Antarctic ice loss in the past 5 years. A 2018 study by scientists from the University of Bern, Switzerland and 17 other countries found that current predictions may underestimate long-term warming by as much as a factor of two.
Although climate models are accurate for a few decades, as we approach the end of this century, the feedback loops from melting permafrost could cause a surge in cumulative CO2, doubling current estimates of warming. Co-author Alan Mix, a scientist from Oregon State University, said, “We can expect that sea-level rise could become unstoppable for millennia, impacting much of the world’s population, infrastructure and economic activity.” In his most recent post in The Nation, Bill McKibben, usually optimistic about our chances, says that, “Success at this point looks like . . . well, not stopping global warming—it’s far too late for that—but rather curbing it short of civilizational destruction.”
Thurston County is one small portion of the world. Now that our federal government has been captured by the far right, local climate action, always important, has become crucial. We are responsible for reducing our carbon emissions rapidly enough to avoid the worst catastrophes of a world 2 degrees C hotter than pre-industrial levels. Replacing PSE with a publicly owned electric utility could make that possible.