Anderson, West: Utility commissioners must improve public outreach, education

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During our unsuccessful 2012 campaigns for Clark Public Utilities Commissioner, Dist. 1, we both met and spoke with many Clark County residents who knew little about energy issues, or how the utility, our electric service provider, works. That lack of voter information was reinforced by the November general election results that showed only 151,400 ballots were cast in the Clark Public Utilities Commission race — 41,900 fewer votes than in other races at the top of the ballot.

Perhaps voters didn't understand the commissioner's job or were not informed on energy issues, but certainly this is a signal for higher public engagement by Clark Public Utilities and its elected board.

With this in mind, we encourage our three elected utility commissioners to embrace a more assertive role in educating the public and voters about energy issues: The cost of energy and where it comes from and how our "cheap" electrical hydropower is in danger of slipping away as we seek alternative and "clean" power sources.

Cheap power has been the bedrock of our local and regional economy for nearly a century. In the next seven years, utilities must grapple with Washington's Initiative 937, which requires that by 2020 a total of 15 percent of our power must come from alternative but unreliable and more expensive sources such as wind and solar. At the same time, traditional sources of reliable power from hydroelectric dams, coal, nuclear energy and natural gas are under pressure.

Gov. Jay Inslee, the author of "Apollo's Fire," a 2008 treatise on the coming new energy economy, is making clean air and global warming initiatives a key piece of his agenda. While alternative energy is attractive it is also more expensive. Wind power, for example, costs $96 a megawatt hour as compared to hydro at $46 MWh. With renewed economic growth, our region's hydro system will reach maximum electric power production.

Utilities both publicly owned and private will require new sources of reliable "base" power to supply our needs 24/7. In addition, utilities will be exploring ways to support "peak" power demand when we shower in the morning and watch TV and use our computers in the evening. They also will be investing in backup power generation that can easily be ramped up and down when the wind stops blowing or the sun doesn't shine. Utilities will be asked to invest in the emerging field of energy storage, as well.

Political choices

The energy we need for our homes and for industry must come from somewhere. There are political choices to be made. With that in mind, we encourage our local utility commissioners to better inform voters and Clark Public Utilities customers along these lines:

Elevate public access to commission meetings by partnering with CVTV, our local community cable channel.

Alternate commission meeting times so more of the public can attend. Consider the model of the Clark Regional Wastewater District that has three separate times each month for its commission meetings.

Regularly inform the community on energy issues through press releases, "points of view" in area publications and better Web information distribution.

Revamp the utility website to better inform users on commission meeting agendas, calendars and issues.

Reach out to the community by following the lead of Port of Vancouver commissioners in hosting regular "Coffee with the Commissioner" events at various locations around Clark County.

Make up-to-date (residential, commercial and industrial) power rate information easily available on the utility Web page along with the utility's 20-year Power Resource Plan.

Partner with our seven cities and Clark County and their staffs to raise the awareness of energy efficiency and energy issues.

Over the next 10 years, Clark Public Utilities commissioners will be making many decisions that will affect our residential and industrial power rates. Let's make sure the voting public understands what the trade-offs are in jobs and rate increases. Utility commissioners can play a big role in this education effort.