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Electricity wars: David vs. Goliath

When most citizens in the Portland metro area flip a switch or use the microwave, the power comes from Portland General Electric (PGE). PGE has dispensed power for years, and a growing number of unsatisfied customers have begun to clamor for more public control of their electric power. The recent defeat of a public utility district (PUD) in Multnomah County hasn’t dampened the spirits of organizers in nearby counties, who are still optimistic that they will defeat PGE’s massive anti-public power effort.

In the current power system, much of the power in the Northwest is generated by dams in the Columbia River Basin. Power from the dams are sold by the Bonneville Power Administration to entities in several states, including PGE and other public utility districts, or PUDs. Those companies in turn connect customers to the power, forming the final link.

The main difference between a privately-held company like PGE and a public utility district is control – in a PUD, the public has much more of a say in where power comes from (for example, nuclear or hydropower) and where it goes. This, in turn, can mean a difference in rates as well, depending on the state of the market.

Organizers of the Multnomah County PUD were defeated in a November ballot measure, and public power in Portland has been shelved for now. However, several nearby counties have formed, or are forming, PUDs of their own. The Clatskanie PUD in Scappoose and the Clark County PUD in Vancouver have been around for years. Citizen groups in Yamhill, Washington and Clackamas counties are currently wading through red tape in an effort to wrest control of the power system away from PGE.

Tom Civiletti, coordinator for the Columbia County Power Organization, has high hopes for the formation of a PUD in his area because of high existing power rates.

“In this community we’re paying extremely high rates and it’s difficult for businesses. The recession is worse in the Portland area than in Oregon and other parts of the country,” Civiletti says. “Even under a very conservative scenario we should easily save 10 percent on our power bills.”

Civiletti points to the success of the Clatskanie PUD as impetus for forming one in Clackamas as well. “They have a relatively small service area and they don’t even have the economies of scale we do in Clackamas County, but their rates are 50 to 60 percent less than ours,” he notes. “Even a third of their rate reduction would have an impact on how we do business in Clackamas County.”

The Columbia County PUD was formed in the mid-1980s and sat inactive for several decades. Power rates can fluctuate wildly based on weather and the global economy, and at the time PGE’s rates were some of the cheapest in the country, giving no advantage to public power. However, Civiletti says when rates rose recently, the PUD re-activated and took over the power delivery system for cities that had originally voted to join it.

“It’s a long and convoluted process, but we ended up in a better position than we were,” he said.

Part of many PUDs’ problem with PGE is its uncertain financial future.

“PGE is in a very unstable position,” Civiletti notes. “They’re owned by Enron, which is still bankrupt, and may be bought out by Texas Pacific. As a private company they don’t even need to make their business records public, and their model has been to buy troubled businesses, bust the unions, cut services and employees and then sell the company to someone else (for a profit). There’s very little stability for PGE, and we don’t know what direction it’ll go.”

Proponents of PUDs anywhere must go up against PGE’s enormous bankroll in their attempt to form. Civiletti says the Columbia County PUD has done some fundraising and is hoping to gain the support of local businesses, but “if we can spend one tenth of what PGE is willing to spend we’ll be lucky. The campaign in Multnomah County was outspent by 75-to-1, and their calculated cost for the vote against the PUD was about $28 per vote,” he says. Civiletti points out that in the several smaller counties that are mounting PUD efforts, there are many more opportunities for one-on-one contact with voters.

Although the formation of a local PUD was defeated this time around, Civiletti is confident that surrounding communities will be successful, and if enough PUDs are formed they may eventually combine to start closing in on PGE’s service area.

“We see a definite advantage to public power over the municipal form, so we’re still committed to it,” he says. If local PUDs are able to form successfully, Civiletti doesn’t rule out the possibility of another push for one in Multnomah County in the future.

PUD efforts rely largely on volunteer efforts, and there are many opportunities for students to get involved. For information on the Clackamas County PUD, contact Tom Civiletti at 503-786-0393. In Yamhill County, contact Mike Caruso at 503-538-1646. In Washington County, contact James McNaughton at 503-626-4015.