Public power in Portland -- what it would take
Fireman Randy was in the paper yesterday, going to bat for the Average Joes again. He was giving Portland General Electric a hard time over its rates. Leonard's actions on this issue (and those of his colleagues on the City Council) are entirely appropriate, and welcome. The city is using state law to force PGE to give up information to justify what it charges its customers. And the city fathers are putting Portland front and center in the recurring proceedings before the Public Utility Commission in Salem on those rates. Good for Portland.
Often during the city's failed, quixotic, and very expensive push to buy PGE, I expressed the view that the council should spend its energy advocating reform of utility ratemaking in Oregon, rather than trying to buy out the bad guys. I still think that's a good idea, and Randy (along with Erik Sten of course) is currently on the right track. Now let's hope that Governor Ted's PUC continues to get the message.
But PGE isn't the only power play of concern at present. The city also needs to keep the heat turned up on the proposed acquisition of Pacific Power by Warren Buffett's energy outfit. Here's another devotee of the almighty buck, coming to town with a cloudy agenda, and with dollar signs in his eyes. While it hassles PGE, the city needs to keep a careful eye on that other deal as well.
In the end, though, the city commissioners are never going to be satisfied until Portland has public power. The wolves will always be at the ratepayers' door, and it's going to be a constant battle with them unless a people's utility district is formed.
Quirky moves like the doomed PGE takeover will never get the city where it thinks it needs to go. There has to be a PUD election in which the PUD proponents actually win. And if the city wants that to happen, the campaign would have to be one the likes of which Portland has never seen before.
The boundaries of the district would have to encompass the whole city. Don't go beyond that, because voters in the outlying communities will be too distrusting. Don't go for less, because it looks too Mickey Mouse. If it's good for part of Portland, it's good for all of Portland.
City Hall would have to stand behind the PUD unwaveringly. (I am assuming that there's no legal problem with that, but I'm neither a utility lawyer nor a municipal government lawyer.) A management plan must be created, and a management team must be recruited, that will convince the voters that the PUD wll actually know what it's doing. None of this, "We'll find somebody to run this after we take it over, and they won't rip us off, trust us," which was the party line during the PGE takeover bid.
The people who are being offered to the voters as the directors of the PUD must all be people that the voters recognize and trust. The last time around, the proposed PUD board was a collection of bright, highly motivated people whose credentials as power company directors were, shall we say, not well established. And no one from the city lifted much of a finger to help. In that atmosphere, public power was no match for the big money that is always thrown up against it.
But picture another PUD election in a couple of years in which the city places its strong support squarely behind the initiative. Imagine a proposed PUD board with people on it like Tom Potter -- established names in whom voters have confidence. Business people like Sal Kadri. Heads of companies who rely heavily on electricity for their livelihoods. An economist. A couple of serious academics. And think of having experienced energy managers lined up, who know what they are doing and express a willingness to come work for a Portland PUD.
No offense to the smart and dedicated people who have worked hard for public power around here for decades, but get rid of the whole burned-out-hippie, anarchist image. No preaching about wind power, solar energy, and eco-roofs, and it's not a referendum on capitalism generally; if you want to win the election, you have to stifle all that for a while. Have local people who look like bankers and doctors front the whole thing. But no greasy Wall Street investment bankers or giant out-of-state law firms, please.
Then go out and do the hard work of selling the benefits to the voters. Make some promises that you know you can keep, in language that the average voter can understand. The Willamette Week looks like it would be on board. The Trib would be a tossup. The Oregonian would probably recommend a no vote, but really, who cares?
I'm a little skeptical of the benefits of public power, but I'm all ears. If done right, maybe public power could be a good thing for the city. But it would require finding first-rate help from capable industry hands, and taking the issue to the voters -- a course that our City Council seems unable, or too timid, to pursue.
The last time it was presented to Multnomah County voters, in 2003, a PUD went down by more than 2 to 1. It would be a steeply uphill battle, to be sure. It might take a couple of additional tries at the polls, and a series of external developments that push power prices up even further, to where they hurt so bad that they have everyone's undivided attention. But stranger things have happened.
One choice seems clear: Either we get a PUD, or Randy has to write op-ed pieces for a dozen more years, or even beyond. Now there's the scariest scenario of them all.