Grange votes to endorse PUD effort

Deer Lagoon Grange in Langley has decided to support the idea of a public utility district for Island County.

“It should come as no surprise that we have come out in support of the formation of a Whidbey PUD,” said Vice President Chuck Prochaska. “The Washington State Grange has supported PUD laws for more than 70 years, and we urge the voting public to support the passage of the ballot measure creating a Whidbey PUD.”

He added that his organization works in support of rural residents in the interest of more affordable, reliable and more environmentally friendly power.

The decision came at the Grange’s Oct. 7 meeting. Members had asked Dave Metheny, campaign director of “People For Yes on Whidbey PUD,” to explain some of the details. Metheny’s group wants to take over Puget Sound Energy’s territory and form a locally-controlled public utility district. The power company, meanwhile, hopes to keep its 34,000 customers on the island.

“Even though we knew he was paid by a state group supporting the PUD, we thought he was speaking from the heart and being honest,” Prochaska said. “He made a good impression.”

Prochaska said that Deer Lagoon Grange hopes that the people of Whidbey recognize that a PUD is the right thing for them.

“We deserve better affordable service, and with us being the stakeholders without the profit motive, we believe the PUD will serve our needs better than a foreign-owned Puget Sound Energy,” he said, referring to a possible sale of the company to an Australian company.

“Our PUD will have our own maintenance people who live on the island, likely resulting in a quicker response when issues arise such as power outages from our frequent high winds,” he added. “As a publicly-owned utility, it will have elected commissioners, giving more control to local residents.”

Puget Sound Energy spokeswoman, Gretchen Aliabadi, said she was disappointed the Grange took that position. “However, we respect their views,” she said.

Aliabadi said that people in the county need to examine the details closely.

“When a storm is coming, we have the ability to bring as many crews as necessary to the island; as many as 18 in one instance,” she noted. “There are only 34,000 residents that we supply with power, but you must remember that storm damage is paid by our total 1.1 million Puget Sound Energy customer base. Our investors take a lot of risk.”

She added that if a new generating station is built, and her company wants and needs to recover the cost, the state Utilities and Transportation Commission could find the company paid too much and only allow it to recoup a portion of the cost.

“There are checks and balances on all we do.” she said.

Regarding Prochaska’s concerns about a “foreign-owned” utility, Aliabadi noted that in today’s global market, bonds can be purchased by anyone.

“If a PUD is formed, can they guarantee foreigners won’t own those bonds?” she asked. “Puget Sound Energy stock has shareholders in 12 or 13 countries.”

The Grange is no stranger to the concept of a public utility district.

Prochaska explained that in the late 1920s, political action by the Washington State Grange led to the idea of bringing electric power to residents of the state who either had no access to electricity or were charged excessive rates for electrical power. The result was the Public Utility Act, which became law in 1931.

Concern over the sale of Puget Sound Energy was one of the factors that led some on Whidbey to begin working to form a PUD.

Also weighing in on the subject is the Washington Public Utility Districts Association, a trade group which has recommended that Puget Sound Energy should offer to sell its distribution system to local communities before selling the company to foreign investors.

In a letter to the Utilities and Transportation Commission this week, the association urged commissioners to require that Puget Sound Energy consider local offers before finalizing a deal to sell the company to a consortium of foreign investors led by the Macquarie Bank of Australia.

“Communities that oppose foreign ownership of their electric company, or communities that feel they can do a better job of providing service than Puget Sound Energy, should have an opportunity to buy their local distribution systems,” said association spokesman Steve Johnson. “Since it is obviously for sale, local buyers should have the same opportunity as a group of foreign investors.”

Puget Sound Energy announced its plan to sell the company to the Macquarie Group Limited consortium a year ago. The buyout has been approved by stockholders, who would get $30 per share, and by federal regulators. The Utilities and Transportation Commission has the final say and has indicated it will issue a decision after the November election.

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