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Clackamas Review/Oregon City News

PGE / PUD debate comes to county

Civiletti, Sweetland want to get local voters behind making a 'People's Utility District' out of PGE

David Stroup

The struggle over the future of PGE has reached Clackamas County — with a local drive starting to form a "People's Utility District" (PUD) to take over power distribution from the Enron-owned utility.

The drive to take Portland General Electric public is being spearheaded by former lawmaker Tom Civiletti, and championed in Milwaukie by prominent local citizen Monroe Sweetland.

According to Civiletti, "In the beginning, there was a lot more interest [in a PUD] in Multnomah County, and lagging interest in other counties, especially Yamhill and Marion." Now, he said, organizers are actively working in Clackamas County to form a PUD, in coordination with a region-wide drive: "If the PUDs are formed in more than one county, they can sign intergovernmental agreements to combine much of the administration — and possibly to reduce costs."

Civiletti said organizers are halfway to the number of signatures they need to put a public-utility vote on the ballot. Activists are pushing for a November vote — at the same time as Multnomah County is expected to vote on the issue under the efforts of an umbrella organization called the Oregon Public Power Coalition (OPPC).

Supporters of public power say publicly owned utilities can provide power more cheaply; they also charge that the actions of PGE's current private owner, Enron, have hurt Oregon consumers.

However, PGE spokesman Scott Simms countered that forming a PUD is "extremely risky. [PGE has] a proven track record. We have a reliability record of 99.99 percent — among the highest of any utility out there."

Simms said that, according to his company's figures, PGE offers rates that are lower than many PUDs — and he warned that condemning the utility's infrastructure and switching to local PUDs would be more difficult than public-power backers claim. According to Simms, "We think ultimately the people who have argued for [public power] ... continue to make claims that have never been substantiated."

A tale of two graphs

According to Civiletti, the PUD is a proven concept with a good track record. He said people who come from areas with public power are usually eager to see the same thing here. He noted that there's already a PUD in Canby — which would be unaffected by the new proposal: In Canby, he said, "they have lower rates than what the rest of the county pays to PGE.... The strongest argument for a PUD is they cost less."

Civiletti challenged arguments that power-trading today is too complex for PUDs to handle: "If this were true, then public-power entities would not be delivering power for less money."

Both PGE and the public-power advocates present graphs to back up their positions. The public-power group's graph shows PGE's rates at the top of the heap locally, with the Clatskanie PUD charging less than half what the utility does. However, PGE presents a similar graph that places the private company in the middle of the pack — with several public agencies, including the Tillamook PUD and West Oregon Co-op, offering higher rates. (The advocates' graph shows Tillamook PUD charging lower rates than PGE.)

According to Simms, PGE's "rates are in the middle — we're neither highest nor lowest." He also charges that condemning PGE's infrastructure to create the PUD would cost over $1 billion. He added that "a brand-new utility these days faces huge risks and uncertainties."

Public-power advocates counter that, when Enron bought PGE in the 1990s, the Columbia River PUD was created — and Civiletti said "they were able to do [the conversion] with almost no cost — just flipping switches."

Anyone interested in the public-power campaign can contact Tom Civiletti at 503-786-0393. The arguments of a group opposing the plan can be found at www.CitizensAgainstTheGovernmentTakeover.com.