In a recent press release, officials at the Bonneville Power Administration boasted about making a $1.05 billion payment to the U.S. Treasury — on time and in full.
Admittedly, a press release is inherently self-serving; the person or organization that sends it out certainly is not doing so to make themselves look bad. But in making a payment for the 38th consecutive year, the BPA got us thinking — about the role and effectiveness of government, and about the importance of infrastructure investment.
Each of these items is in the news these days, with fundamental divisions over the purpose of government and with debates over infrastructure raging in Congress. There is a place for such debate, but the next time somebody erroneously claims that private industry is inherently more efficient than government, you can point to the BPA — and to the power grid in Texas.
Texas, as we all learned earlier this year, has a power grid controlled by the supposedly infallible free market. In February, a severe cold snap led to widespread outages that left 4.5 million homes and businesses without power, some for several days. The outages led to shortages of food, water and heat, and a conservative estimate is that they led to 200 deaths.
That provides a sharp contrast to the reliable electricity that powers the Northwest, and the BPA is the bedrock of that system.
The Bonneville Power Administration was created by an act of Congress in 1937 to help electrify the region in the midst of the Great Depression. Today, it markets power from 31 federal dams throughout the Columbia River Basin, hydroelectricity that is sold to local utilities or to facilities in other states or Canada.
Clark Public Utilities, for example, is a public entity overseen by an elected three-person board of commissioners. It purchases nearly two-thirds of its electricity from the BPA, with the bulk of the rest coming from its River Road Generating Plant.
To be clear, the BPA is not a government entity. It is a self-funding nonprofit power marketer that sells wholesale electricity, and it receives no appropriation from the federal government. But the BPA would not exist without a commitment from — and partnership with — the federal government.
The BPA makes payments each year to compensate for taxpayers’ investment in the Federal Columbia River Power System. This year’s payment included $806 million in principal, $187 million in interest and $56 million in various other costs, including irrigation assistance throughout the region. BPA sets its annual rates for customers to maintain a 97.5 percent probability of making the payment.
Of course, the system is not perfect. The Bonneville Power Administration invested in the misguided Washington Public Power Supply System in the 1960s, and the project to construct a series of nuclear power plants derisively — and accurately — soon became known as Whoops!
But the fact that clean, reliable, relatively inexpensive electricity has been available for more than seven decades has helped turn the Northwest into an economic powerhouse. Washington routinely is ranked as having the best economy of any state, and its per-capita gross domestic product is among the highest in the nation.
Much of that success has been built upon a dependable power grid, and the fact that much of our electricity comes from a renewable source has positioned our state for a transition to a green economy.
So, when the BPA sends out a press release singing its own praises — well, there probably is good reason for it.