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Power Emergency is Over in the Northwest

by Hunter T. Georg, Associated Press
Seattle Post-Intelligencer, December 12, 2000

OLYMPIA -- Fears of an electrical emergency in the Northwest ended Tuesday morning, after moderating temperatures reduced demand on a stressed system, a spokesman for the Northwest Power Planning Council said.

An emergency response team made up of utilities and government officials met Tuesday morning and decided to lift a warning about possible power shortages, John Harrison said.

"It's still cold, but not to the point where there is even the threat of an emergency," Harrison said in a telephone interview from Portland.

Northwest utilities came close this week to having to dip into power reserves, and officials asked businesses and the public to voluntarily cut electricity use. For instance, people were asked to not turn on their Christmas lights until 8 p.m.

The lifting of the warning does not mean that people should binge on electricity, Harrison said.

"Christmas lights are not a problem. Go ahead and use them," Harrison said. "But don't go out and burn all the bulbs you have in your house."

Winter has not even arrived yet, and the long-term forecast is for continued cold and dry weather, Harrison said. That means the Northwest still faces the prospects of power shortages this winter, he said.

The threat of a power shortage pushed people into action this week.

Washington Gov. Gary Locke on Monday sent a letter asking California Gov. Gray Davis to find a way to get idle power plants in the Golden State into operation.

"To make power available for California, we modified our salmon restoration operations on the Columbia River and authorized additional generation from facilities limited by air pollution restrictions," Locke wrote.

"We now ask that, in this spirit, you take all appropriate measures to provide similar help to us as needed."

Locke said the letter was just one part of his strategy to help the state keep the lights on and heaters heating during this week's cold weather.

Eastern Washington low temperatures this week were forecast to be in the single digits and teens with lows in Western Washington in the 20s to low 30s.

Locke said the state Ecology Department, local air pollution control agencies and the federal Environmental Protection Agency were working to find ways to operate power plants limited by air-quality restrictions.

The groups reached an agreement that will allow Puget Sound Energy to fire up its plant near Spanaway without exceeding pollution standards -- at least not yet. Similar talks with Avista Utilities regarding an idled plant in Spokane also were proceeding, said David Danner, the governor's policy adviser on energy.

In addition, the state was pushing for agreements that would allow the plants to exceed air-pollution restrictions at times this winter if or when the state faces more power crunches, Danner said.

Locke said conservation efforts by individuals and businesses over the weekend helped utilities prepare for the cold snap that hit early Monday. The cold weather was expected to last most of the week, prompting Locke to repeat his request for voluntary conservation measures, especially during peak morning and evening hours.

He said he directed state agencies to cut their power consumption by 5 percent to 10 percent, and noted that he ordered state workers to turn off the lights in the Capitol dome and the Christmas lights around the Capitol campus.

His staff sheepishly acknowledged they missed one obvious place -- lights on the huge Christmas tree in the Capitol Rotunda. While Locke spoke to reporters, an aide rushed out to find someone to turn the tree lights off.

The governor, acknowledging complaints that the electricity grid has failed to keep up with the region's growth, said the state is not to blame. Permits have been issued for six power plants that could provide electricity to 2.7 million houses in all, but no developers have proceeded with construction, he said.

Elsewhere, state regulators said they are looking into an allegation that Puget Sound Energy is unfairly profiting from huge spikes in the cost of electricity -- at the expense of the state's biggest power consumers.

Five years ago, Boeing, Intel, Georgia-Pacific, King County, the Port of Seattle and other industrial users got approval from regulators to break away from Puget Sound Energy's fixed prices and buy electricity at market prices.

It was a great deal until this year, when the market zoomed upward.

A megawatt hour that sold for $27 a year ago hit $781 Friday and was predicted to jump to the neighborhood of $3,000 this week, according to Melinda Davison, a Portland-based attorney for the industrial customers.

On Saturday, Davison complained to the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission that Puget is reaping huge profits by selling power at outrageous market prices even though it bought or produced the electricity for far less.

She filed a complaint Monday, along with a request that the commission order Puget to charge only the cost of providing the service, plus any surcharge necessary to protect other ratepayers from getting stuck with the bill.

The three-member commission ordered its staff to look into the matter this week and report its initial findings at the panel's meeting Wednesday.

Puget spokesman Grant Ringel disputed Davison's assertion that Puget is not out buying the same high-priced power each day as the industrial users.

"We absolutely are not taking advantage of these customers through this process," Ringel said. "We're subject to the same swings in volatilities that these customers face."

He added that the industrial customers "made millions" after demanding the right to purchase electricity at a price set by a market index.

Hunter T. Georg, Associated Press
Power Emergency is Over in the Northwest
Seattle Post-Intelligencer, December 12, 2000

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