Energy Adviser: Public power was hard won

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Energy Adviser is written by Clark Public Utilities. Send questions to energyadviser@clarkpud.com or to Energy Adviser, c/o Clark Public Utilities, P.O. Box 8900, Vancouver, WA 98668.

Clark Public Utilities is owned by you, the customer. You elect commissioners who run the utility, Public Utility District No. 1 of Clark County. Being not for profit, locally owned and controlled by customers is the key difference between public and private utilities.

Private, investor-owned companies such as Portland General Electric provide electricity in Oregon. Having a customer-owned public utility in Clark County was a hard-fought battle.

Vancouver resident and former Department of Energy administrator Dan Ogden boils the debate down: "What is electricity? Is it a commodity or a public service? The public power people say it's a service and should be provided to the public at no profit. … It means the public has its elected representatives running the power system. They are going to respond to the customers' needs instead of trying to please absent stockholders demanding a profit."

Cities were the Northwest's first public suppliers, beginning with McMinnville Water & Light in 1889. They competed with private utilities. As electric consumption grew, so did the competition, according to "Public Power Chronicle," a 2002 book by the Portland-based Public Power Council.

Momentum built for public power during the Great Depression. In 1930, 54 percent of Washington voters approved the Grange Power Bill. The initiative allowed the an area to form a PUD by a vote of the people to be served.

"It was a big battle," said Jeff Hammarlund, an adjunct professor at Portland State University. "The investor-owned utilities fought aggressively against the initiative."

President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal advanced the cause of public power by building the Bonneville and Grand Coulee dams on the Columbia River. In 1937, Congress created the Bonneville Power Administration to distribute the dams' low-cost, dependable electricity, with preference given to public power customers.

To reap the benefits of this new electricity, the people of Clark County voted in 1938 to create what is now Clark Public Utilities. On August 21, 1942, that electric utility began serving its first customer, Air Reduction Company, selling power purchased from the BPA federal hydropower system.

Even as PUDs formed around the state, investor-owned utilities continued to thrive -- and fight against customer-owned power. Both sides employed some interesting methods in their battle.

To promote the Columbia River hydroelectric system and public power, the BPA hired Woody Guthrie, then an unknown folk singer, to record songs in 1941. He traveled the region and wrote 26 songs in 30 days, including "Roll On, Columbia."

Private electric companies in Clark County backed a sleeper candidate for PUD commissioner in 1944, according to Gene Tollefson's 1987 book, "BPA and the Struggle for Power at Cost." The two investor-owned utilities -- PGE and the Northwestern Electric Company -- that had previously served Clark County helped elect a commissioner who then announced opposition to the PUD's acquisition of the two companies' assets. But a majority of the board still favored public power and moved ahead to buy electric system properties.

The PUD began purchasing the equipment in 1945 after a federal court set a value of $801,000 on PGE's properties, according to Tollefson. The PUD issued a $1 million bond and took possession in 1946. The NEC properties were purchased for $5.8 million in 1948, bringing the number of Clark PUD customers to 22,000.

Today, Clark Public Utilities serves 184,000 home, business and industrial customers with electricity at cost. Nearly 60 percent of the electricity supplied to Clark County is generated by the federal hydrosystem, and is still some of the most reliable, affordable energy in the country.

And the rest is history.