The three candidates for Clark Public Utilities District Board of Commissioners District 1 agree that the utility is running well, but they all have their own ideas about how it could be improved.
The District 1 commissioner represents north Clark County.
Incumbent Jim Malinowski was elected in 2012. He spent more than 30 years at Pacific Gas & Electric in a variety of roles. He also was the power utilities technology instructor for Clark College for eight years. He has a master’s degree in electrical engineering from Texas A&M University and a master’s degree in business from Stanford University.
Malinowski said he brings experience in his role that will benefit ratepayers in the next six years.
Judy Chipman retired from a 16-year career at the Bonneville Power Administration, about five of which she spent as a senior business management analyst. Chipman, who took courses at Clark College and holds a certificate of purchasing management from the Institute of Supply Chain Management, also served on the Columbia Credit Union Board of Directors for nine years and is currently a member of its supervisory committee. She is also a lifetime resident of Clark County.
Chipman said she had been planning to run for District 1 for some time. She believes that her experience on the credit union board, during which they hired a new CEO, has given her the experience to find and hire leadership. Additionally, the credit union board has similar responsibilities to Clark Public Utilities’.
Sherry Erickson is a mechanical engineer with a master’s degree in business administration. She’s worked as a consulting engineer for more than 20 years in design and construction. She also runs a small consulting firm with her husband.
Erickson previously ran in 2012.
Erickson argued she’s most qualified for the position because the utility is on the verge of a retirement tidal wave among its employees and the perspective of a younger commissioner will create managerial continuity, adding that she plans to hold the position for multiple terms.
Clark Public Utilities buys 60 percent of its electricity from the BPA. The remaining 40 percent is produced by the utility’s gas-fired plant and from some renewable facilities such as wind and solar.
Malinowski said under his watch the utility, through effective conservation measures by the utility and modern building standards, has effectively maintained consistent load demand despite serving a growing population.
“That means we don’t have to go out and buy new resources that are going to be more expensive,” he said. “Essentially, per capita use of energy has gone down enough to match the population growth.”
Erickson said she’d like to see more on-site solar production from homes to schools to hospitals. She argued that would continue to offset load growth. She acknowledged there are concerns about customers who would produce more power than they consume and whether the utility should buy that back from them.
“It’s not going to be business as usual when you’re talking about on-site generation, ” she said. “It is the answer for the future, but it is a more complex equation than (buying) from the BPA and distributing it.”
Chipman said the utility shouldn’t change how it sources electricity, saying its sourcing methods were effective. She also said that “it would be great” for the utility to buy back excess energy from solar producers, but that solar “only goes so far” in the Pacific Northwest.
Malinowski said Clark Public Utilities currently buys up to 1 percent of the utility’s peak demand of 2006 — double the state requirement — from solar producers. He likened net metering to free storage for energy producers because the utility tracks when they over produce and provide it back when it’s needed. However, personally, he doesn’t think the utility should pay for the excess energy customers produce because of the “free storage.”
“To me that’s a sufficient reward,” he said.
Malinowski also doesn’t think the utility should invest in its own solar infrastructure because he doesn’t see it as economically effective as traditional electricity production methods.
The candidates also were unanimously in support of conservation and carbon reduction but against Initiative 1631, which would put a fee on fossil fuels to raise money for clean-energy projects. Large carbon emitters, such as electricity plants, would pay $15 per metric ton of carbon starting January 2020. That fee would increase by $2 per ton each year through 2035, with inflationary adjustments — among other changes.
As to expanding the number of buried power lines in the county, Malinowski said if customers want theirs put underground, they should be willing to pay at least part of the costs.
Chipman praised buried power lines and said as existing ones come up for repair or replacement, that would be an opportune time to bury them.
Erickson said buried lines are good, but noted they have a higher deterioration rate from being buried underground, which comes with its own maintenance costs. But, with reliability being such a high priority for the utility, buried lines are ideal, she said.
As to CEO compensation, Malinowski said the utility’s current general manager, Wayne Nelson, who as of 2017 made $280,000 annually, is underpaid when compared with other utilities.
Chipman said she shared similar views, and believed Nelson’s pay was “definitely worth it.”
Erickson said the utility is essentially a $400 million company and part of attracting and retaining high-quality leadership requires a certain salary.
Utility commissioners serve a six-year term. The utility’s commission sets policy, approves annual budgets, establishes rates, approves major purchases and investments, and selects a general manager who executes their policy.