The role of a public utility was fiercely debated Wednesday by three candidates running to fill the Clark Public Utility District’s commissioner position for District 2. Neither Nancy Barnes, Carol Dillin nor Don Steinke had identical opinions on what level of advocacy is appropriate for such an agency.
The Columbian’s Editorial Board interviewed the three candidates vying for the position earlier this week. The main consideration on the table was climate change and all that entails for a power-providing utility.
Advocacy is appropriate, said Dillin, who retired as an officer for Portland General Electric in Oregon.
“The planet is burning, and we need to be responsive,” said Dillin. “The electric utility industry has a particularly important role to play.”
Dillin went on to mention Washington’s public utilities are working together on the Clean Energy Transformation Act, which aims to make the state’s electricity supply produced without greenhouse gas emissions by 2045.
“It’s imperative that we all work together on how to mitigate carbon emissions,” she added. “I don’t see how you can do any sort of planning without climate change front and center.
“There’s always room for positive activism to make a difference in a community and a state that is committed to a clean and green future.”
Barnes took a strong position that advocacy was not the public utility’s role.
“My job as a PUD commissioner is to provide reliable electricity and clean water at cost to my customers,” she said. “My focus is always on our customers.”
“I’m not here to change the world. I don’t work for Gov. Inslee. I don’t work for a bunch of lobbyists. I’m supposed to listen to my customers and try to give them what they need.”
Barnes, who has been on the commission for 30 years, said it can be easy to forget that you’re working for the customers when you’re lobbying for special interests like solar, wind and electric vehicles.
Steinke, a known local advocate for fighting climate change, spoke strongly in favor of advocacy taking the form of education. He said the utility should be educating the public on climate change and what can be done to lower emissions.
“We need to educate the public regarding the harms associated with our production of electricity,” he said.
Climate change was a frequent topic in the meeting, with all three candidates mentioning it. However, like the debate on how much advocacy a public utility should do, none quite agreed on how much the utility should do.
Barnes urged making changes to mitigate climate change responsibly. She made clear she was not willing to charge low- and middle-income customers more so that higher income folks could afford to install solar panels and electric vehicle chargers at cheaper prices.
“It’s a very delicate balance we have to keep,” said Barnes, also pointing out the Washington utilities are leaders in fighting climate change in the nation.
“We’re exactly where we need to be: responsible and taking care of our customers,” she added.
Meanwhile, Steinke insisted more could be done by the utility, including having more conservation projects, a smart grid management system and more electric vehicle charging stations. Dillin agreed that more should be done.
Opportunities are changing the industry, Dillin added.
“Instead of just the utility creating and distributing the energy, it’s really the customers having control,” she said.
The candidates also discussed the future of nuclear power for the utility, as well as the impact the utility could have on the county’s affordable housing crisis.
The election will be held Aug. 2. Ballots were mailed out Friday.