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Commentaries and editorials

Region Needs Power but has Few Options

by Editors
Seattle Times - January 4, 2001

Seattle City Light says it may ask for rate increases more than the 10 percent that went into effect. It follows Tacoma, where rates are up 42 percent, and Snohomish County, up 35 percent. The power shortage begins to seem real.

The rate increases should cause investors and regulators to look much more seriously at new power generation. That starts with the Sumas Energy 2 gas-turbine project, which is before the state's Energy Facilities Site Evaluation Council this month.

Sumas Energy 2 would create 660 megawatts of power - about one-fifth of the region's needs over the next 10 years. That's a 3,000-megawatt hole. Other things can help fill it, including energy conservation and wind turbines. But other sources of power cannot be tapped quickly. Wind turbines, for example, take about an acre of land per megawatt, often in scenic places, and they work only when the wind blows.

Gas turbines work around the clock. They are far less polluting than oil and coal plants, though they do emit pollutants. Whether this is tolerable depends on who you are. The city leaders of Sumas, where local taxing authorities would get $5 million a year from the plant, are for it; in neighboring Abbotsford, B.C., which would earn no taxes from it, leaders are against it.

British Columbia's government is against this plant but the province's power problems are much less acute than ours. In fact, the province's utility, B.C. Hydro, appears to be one of those "out-of-state power generators" charging what Gov. Gary Locke recently called "obscene, manipulative and extortionist electricity prices."

In the six months ended Sept. 30, B.C. Hydro increased its revenues from power sales by about $1.1 billion (U.S.) from a year earlier, to a new total of $1.5 billion (U.S.). The figures from the past three months haven't been announced yet, but they will be big. "Profits from electricity trade," the utility says, will be put into a special account "to assure B.C. Hydro domestic customers continue to enjoy among the lowest electricity prices in North America."

That's a nice position to be in. It also makes it easy to oppose your neighbor's power plant. This is not to say the Canadians should be ignored. The state might require the Suma developer, National Energy Systems Co., to buy down pollution on the Canadian side by subsidizing new boilers and other equipment at Canadian companies. Nor is this to say Sumas Energy deserves special favors. A few months ago, the backers asked the Legislature for a sales-tax exemption under a program designed to create rural factory jobs. Gov. Locke, noting that the tax break would cost the state $960,000 per job, decided that it wasn't worth it. He was right. But the larger question is not whether the state needs 24 jobs in Sumas, but whether the region needs a new source of power enough for 400,000 homes.

The events of the past few months should convince even the non-experts that the region needs the power. We are not going to build any more big dams. The alternative is to build more gas generation or buy it elsewhere as the prices rise.

Region Needs Power but has Few Options
Seattle Times Company, January 4, 2001

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