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Vashon’s source of Clean Electricity

If you live on Vashon, are concerned about your carbon footprint and wonder what you can do about it,  you’ll appreciate this article.  It describes our situation.

Putting air travel aside, your largest contribution of carbon dioxide into our atmosphere probably happens while commuting by ferry in a gas or diesel fueled vehicle and, later in your day, while heating and lighting your home with electricity from your local utility.   The commuting is somewhat under your control—you could walk, cycle or drive an EV—but the carbon you contribute by using the electricity supplied depends largely upon Puget Sound Energy (PSE).  They burn fossil fuels to create their non-renewable power; you currently have no control over how much carbon they burn.  And, if you consume electricity, you must accept what the grid offers locally.

I say “what the grid offers”.  Electricity is delivered in Washington by 65 independent utilities; most of them non-profits; 3 are for-profit companies.  Each utility delivers power within their designated service area and, also, arranges to supply that power from their own generators or buys it from other providers; often from the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA, a federal agency). Ultimately, all this power is loaded onto the Northwest Power grid which delivers it onward to the utility and its customers.  Once power enters the grid from an individual source—be that hydro, nuclear, wind, solar or from the burning of fossil fuels—it is simply electricity; a common resource from a mix of fuels and sources; some as far away as Montana’s coal.

The mix of power delivered in Washington is accounted for and reported annually on a state website (see http://www.commerce.wa.gov/growing-the-economy/energy/fuel-mix-disclosure/ ).  In that report, one can track the power and fuel mix associated with each of our 65 utilities.  Here is where we find the combination of fuels used and the total electricity contributed to the grid by each utility.  

For example, as we know, our state is blessed by hydro-power derived from dam turbines and supplied to our grid as electricity, 100% renewable and carbon-free.  In fact, the electricity generated, sold by BPA and loaded for delivery on the grid is reportedly 98% carbon-free—i.e., less than 2% tainted by the burning of carbon fuels such as coal, petroleum or natural gas.  If that were the end of the story we would have nothing but praise for the small carbon footprint left by our electric utilities, but it’s not.

Only 36 of our utilities purchase all their power from BPA.  Another 24 non-profit utilities get a portion of their power from BPA but generate some of their own and/or purchase from other producers.  Still, these 60 non-profits supply our grid with power that is better than 97% carbon-free.  Collectively, they distribute over 50% of our state’s electricity and, as a block, less than 3% is tainted by the burning of fossil fuels.  If we drop our carbon concerns here, we could praise our electricity for being largely renewable and carbon free, but the story changes radically when we include other providers.

There are 5 utilities of the 65 in our state—3 for-profit corporations and 2 non-profit public utilities—that, collectively, supply and distribute the other 50% of our electricity, but derive over 50% of theirs from burning non-renewable fossil fuels.  Here is where our concern for the use of large amount of fossil fuels must focus.

Our Vashon supplier, PSE, is one of these 5 utilities; the largest in the state—providing nearly 25% of our state’s electricity with 59% of that total coming from the burning of fossil fuels.  That’s dirty power; leaving a large carbon footprint for all of us!

You might wonder how this supplier of such dirty power gets away with it--an interesting part of the full story.
Electric utilities are built around a simple business model. They establish a connection to the grid, invest in their service-area infrastructure--poles, lines, transformers, meters, service vehicles and such—and, establish rates based upon power, labor and maintenance costs.  If it works out, the non-profit utilities break even each year and the investor-owned companies profit enough to satisfy their shareholders. 

PSE is a classic, for-profit utility—a Bellevue-based corporation whose stock is held by another company: Puget Sound Holding.  This holding company is owned by five investors: Macquarie, an Australian hedge fund together with two Canadian hedge funds—one in BC, another in Alberta--plus two pension funds; one Australian, the other Canadian.  These foreign hedge and pension funds are interested in PSE’s dividends and, if all was set up properly, they’ll receive those through the holding company without any need to pay taxes in the USA. 

But then PSE operates as a monopoly in their service area and must submit to the scrutiny of Washington’s Utilities and Transportation Commission (UTC) who regulates their rates and other operational details.  Our UTC could require PSE to reduce their over sized carbon footprint, but hasn’t so far.

Our UTC is run by 3 commissioners, appointed by our governor and confirmed by our state Senate.  Each commissioner has a staff and a six year term.  They are located in Olympia and, we must assume, surrounded by lobbyists—many of them representing the interest of PSE.

Can we reduce our carbon footprint?  Let the UTC know that you want 100% renewable energy!