On Wednesday January 29, I chaired my first Energy Committee meeting as City Councilmember. It was the beginning of a process of learning about City Light, municipalized energy, and electric power systems.
My Priorities for the Energy Committee
The last several decades have seen an intense wave of privatization of public utilities and infrastructure, both nationally and globally. We will be talking about that more in future blog postings. Seattle City Light has so far remained a publicly owned and run utility.
One of my goals is to make the working of City Light as public and accessible as possible. You can find the agenda and topics of the meeting, with supporting presentation materials, and the video of the meeting. I urge the people of Seattle to actively engage in the discussion, and especially to attend the committee meetings and participate in the public comment period.
I am a big proponent of municipalized utilities that can work not for private profit, but for the good of society in an environmentally sustainable manner. Along with my organization, Socialist Alternative, I believe that decision-making power should lie with the workers who make the cities run, and the working families that pay taxes to ensure services are funded. Therefore, we call for taking big corporations, including big energy corporations, into democratic public ownership. We will fight to keep City Light and all its services public and continue to keep corporations from profiting off of basic human needs. I also think that executive salaries paid by the city should be benchmarked to be no more than four or five times the average worker’s wage.
Seattle already has a skyrocketing cost of living. With rents continuing to soar, working people cannot afford higher rates for electricity. I am committed to fighting against any and all rate hikes for working people while providing the best possible service. While City Light runs itself, my position as Energy Committee chair gives a window for the public into the inner workings and some oversight to its operations.
City Light Discount Program for Lower Income Households
Seattle offers a substantial discount to lower-income people. Please visit the website or call (206) 684-3417 to find out if you qualify. Another of my priorities will be to investigate the current low enrollment rates into the discount program for low-income customers of City Light and Public Utilities. I invite you to get in touch with my office if you have personally experienced challenges in accessing the program.
About City Light
City Light is the largest part of the City of Seattle’s budget, with a budget of over $1 billion. Here are recent annual reports . It employs around 1,800 employees, 90% of which are union members, with the two largest unions being IBEW 77 and PTE 17.
Where Our Power Comes From
The vast majority of City Light electricity comes from hydroelectric power, meaning the vast majority of our power does not come from burning polluting fossil fuels. However, it comes with a downside of being dependent on the weather and affected by climate change. This means that the more snow that falls in the mountains, the more that can melt and become water behind a dam, though this is also dependent on it being warm enough to melt the snow. Global warming has led to less snowpack in recent years and will continue to affect hydroelectric energy production.
Another challenge that comes with hydroelectric power is that the reliance on the weather means that more power cannot be produced just because demand is greater. And at times, we have to produce more power than is needed – for example, if there’s a huge rainstorm a dam might have to release excess water. In order to make up for this variability, City Light buys and sells energy on the wholesale market.
Buying and selling energy on the wholesale market means City Light’s revenues are affected by energy prices that are largely dictated by fossil fuels. For example, fracking, an extremely polluting process of extracting natural gas, has lowered the cost of energy and therefore meant that City Light gets less revenue when selling hydroelectric power on the open market.
In 2000-2001, Enron’s manipulation of energy prices caused wholesale energy costs to skyrocket, up to 50 times greater than current prices. This caused huge rate increases for City Light and prompted the creation of the Rate Stabilization Account (RSA) to be a buffer to prevent unpredictable prices from being directly passed on to City Light customers.
Please get in touch with any questions or comments. City Light is your energy company and we will work hard to include you and your opinions in the work we do. Please stay tuned for an announcement about the next Energy Committee meeting and what issues we’ll be discussing. The next committee will be at 9:30AM on Wednesday, Feb 12.