Who are you?
We are Power to the Public, a nonprofit created by a small group of frustrated power customers, power-grid geeks, concerned environmental experts, and other interested volunteers. We are joined by people from all over the county, including business owners, farmers, families, public employees, union members, young people and old, landlords and renters.
Some of us became aware of the possibilities that public power could bring to the table during the last campaign in 2012. Some of us have recently become aware as local control of our common resources seems more and more necessary in unsteady times. We hope to learn from the successes and failures of the last campaign as our group works together to improve our energy choices.
What is Public Power?
We want our Public Utility District to choose to administer electrical service in Thurston County. If our initiative passes, the Thurston County Public Utility District (PUD), founded in 1938 and now responsible for 275 water systems, could own, operate, and maintain the electrical infrastructure in Thurston County as a non-profit public service.
What are the benefits of Public Power?
Public power is reliable, accountable, and sustainable energy. It pays into our economy, it contributes to our autonomy, and it allows us to invest in our own stable energy future.
As it now stands, county residents who use electricity—nearly all of us—are forced to buy our power from a entrenched for-profit monopoly headquartered overseas. We pay the highest rates in the state, by far.
Public power will mean local control of our power grid. It will give our county access to federally subsidized hydropower and will create local jobs. Instead of the being beholden to the second-largest trader of physical (“natural”) gas, we will be able to come together as a community to decide our best energy future. It’s time that we voters of Thurston County had local control over our own energy future.
Who else has public power?
Thurston County is surrounded by public power. Today, 55 percent of customers in Washington state are supplied by public power—at lower rates than we pay and with better reliability and higher customer satisfaction. One major bonus of a public utility system is the ability to collaborate with our PUD neighbors for regional benefit.
Jefferson County voted for a public electrical utility in November 2012 with a Public Power campaign of their own. They began the transition in May 2013. Even though their PUD chose to purchase all the equipment from the previous provider at a premium price, they keep rates steady as they pay off cost of the low-interest Municipal Utility Bonds they used to buy the system.
Will my rates be lower with a public utility?
We think so. Public utilities nationwide have lower rates than corporate- or investor-owned utilities. Here in Washington, where private utilities like ours are unusual, we private customers pay more for their electricity than public-utility bill payers in our state. Plus, Thurston County’s provider has the highest electricity rates in the state of Washington.
Remember, PUDs are nonprofit. A for-profit energy corporation doing business in Washington state can skim off 7.8 percent profit for their shareholders—and PSE does. This is after they pay a minimum amount for maintenance and a maximum for overseas executive salaries.
In contrast, our PUD is run by locally elected officials who would use the money from your electric bill to build and maintain a community electrical system. Locally accountable, they are motivated to keep rates low.
How do we know our bills won’t rise?
We don’t, exactly. However, it’s super unlikely, and bills will likely go down. Public power customers in the rest of our state pay at least 10 percent less than we do. Some public utility customers pay 58 percent less, on average.
It just makes sense. With public power, our bill money won’t go to extravagant salaries for international energy moguls and their skeleton crew in Bellevue. If we can authorize our PUD to provide electrical service, we can vote that our bill cash should pay into local investments and lower rates.
Established PUDs charge less, and even the newest PUD hasn’t raised rates despite an especially expensive transition.
How much will the transition cost?
The transition price depends on if we choose to move gradually or all at once, and the gradual approach is more likely. Several years ago, the PUD conducted a business-assessment study evaluating several scenarios for how public power might be rolled out in Thurston County.
Some scenarios were based on only a part of the county being re-electrified, at first. The initial costs for starting with part of the county were assessed at near $50 million.
Based on a total countywide financial assessment of the current system at $130 million, plus some premium for acquisition, the latest report estimates that the cost for transitioning the entire county would be about $170 – $220 million. The options would be adopted by PUD commissioners with public input.
Will my taxes go up?
This initiative does not include any tax increases, nor will the transition cost in taxes, since it will be paid for with municipal bonds, and those will be paid for with revenues from the future sale of electricity.
How will we buy the equipment?
Thurston PUD will issue Municipal Revenue Bonds.
What are Municipal Revenue Bonds?
Municipal Revenue Bonds allow communities to finance necessary local services. Thurston County PUD will issue municipal revenue bonds to be paid off over 20 – 30 years from a portion of PUD’s electrical operations. Community-owned utilities regularly finance projects with municipal bonds.
Under Municipal Revenue Bond rules, Thurston County taxpayers will NOT owe the debt; the PUD will. Our PUD will pay these low-interest bonds off with part of the electric revenues. This purchase is a solid public investment that will certainly pay off in the long run.
What if the corporation doesn’t want to sell?
If we win at the ballot box, they don’t have a choice. They may not want to sell; however, Washington State Law allows the PUD, as an elected public entity, to exercise condemnation authority. The company would be required to sell us the equipment installed in our county at fair market value. We can call upon the courts, if we must, but we’re hopeful that we can all agree to a fair price for the retreating company and for residents. We are willing to fight for a fair deal, if need be.
Can our PUD manage an electrical system?
The Thurston County PUD has a long history of providing great service with their 275 water utilities. Adding electricity to their services will simply mean hiring people with experience, some of whom most likely are currently working for PSE.
What do freedom and democracy have to do with a public utility?
With Public Power, we are the owners. Our community can control our energy future, as negotiated through locally elected leaders. With private, corporate-monopoly power, contracts with conglomerate power companies rob us of our freedom to choose sustainable and affordable energy options. Without this freedom. the only people who have a voice in how our basic needs are met are the distant investors who own our power.
In contrast, all PUD meetings are open to the public, and Washington’s strict Public Records Act requires that you have any information you want. If you don’t like what the PUD is doing, you can vote the commissioners out and change it. That’s democracy in action.
If you don’t like what a private energy company is doing, you can theoretically petition the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission (WUTC). This is a weak recourse, at best, however, since the WUTC is notoriously cozy with the companies it regulates. For instance, WUTC has never denied the current company a rate increase, though they invest in dirty power and pull in a usurious 7.8 percent return from our county power bills every year.
Getting power from a PUD gives us a free voice in how our energy is operated. That’s control by local voters.
What does the ballot initiative say?
“Shall Public Utility District No. 1 of Thurston County construct or acquire electric facilities for the generation, transmission, or distribution of electric power?”
It’s a simple message that allows our elected commissioners the power to choose an electrical system that serves our county’s people. Sign on. Vote “Yes.”
Can we get this on the ballot?
Yes! We will need 15,000 signatures by July. We can do this. First, from now on will talk to Thurston County voters—every day—and tell them about Public Power, and we’ll ask them to sign and support.
We have intrepid volunteers already gathering signatures. They find that people of Thurston County are ready for a change and are usually eager to sign.
Our group is working hard to spread the word that choosing a reliable, affordable, and sustainable energy future through Public Power is something worth working toward together. New volunteers start every day. More helpers make signature-gathering fun.