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PUDs can light the way - again

PUDs can light the way - again

by Steve Johnson

The "Cascade Curtain" separating eastern and western Washington is not the state’s only division: There is a huge and troubling gap between urban and rural areas. While Washington’s cities are thriving, its rural economies lag far behind.

Public utility districts—nonprofit, publicly-owned utilities—serve much of rural Washington, and they want to help solve this problem.

The state with the worst disparity

Twenty-three rural counties in Washington are considered distressed because of their high unemployment rates. In some rural areas, unemployment rates are three times as high as they are in Spokane and Seattle. One recent study concluded that the urban/rural economic disparity is worse in Washington than in any other state.

Gov. Locke has said, "I will not tolerate ‘two Washingtons’—one that is prosperous and another that is struggling." The state legislature also has made this issue a priority, establishing a bipartisan, joint task force on rural economic development.

A solution rooted in our past

As leaders search for solutions, our state’s history may point the way. In the 1920s, as now, rural Washingtonians fared worse than their urban cousins. One reason was that private utilities refused to provide electricity to farms—or charged exorbitant prices to do so. Without power, economic progress was hindered.

That’s why a farm organization, the Washington State Grange, filed Initiative #1, the Grange Power Bill. Its passage gave rural communities the ability to form nonprofit, community-operated public utility districts (PUDs). People in 28 Washington counties did just that. The PUDs succeeded in bringing electricity to farms and small towns throughout the state.

While electricity is readily available today to those living outside Washington’s cities, telecommunication services are not. Services taken for granted in Seattle, such as high speed Internet hook-ups and digital cable TV, are not available in many rural areas. Just as electricity was a key to economic development in the past, high-speed, high-capacity information transmission services are vital to commerce, education, health care and other aspects of life today. The lack of such services is one reason why rural areas continue to fall behind economically.

Just as communities used PUDs to deliver modern technology in the past, they could do so today. Many PUDs are installing fiber optic cable in order to remotely monitor and control utility substations, switchyards, and pole-top installations. When extended to individual meters, these cables allow utilities to read meters remotely and offer new energy conservation services. This telecommunication technology makes it possible for utilities to detect and repair outages that occur while a customer is sleeping and unaware of them.

The fiber optic lines used by electric utilities have the capacity to carry additional digital signals. By using this excess capacity, rural communities can create opportunities for telecommuting, distance learning, video conferencing, remote provision of health care services, and access to markets.

As nonprofit, public entities, PUDs might also be able to provide services, such as high-speed Internet access, that for-profit companies are failing to deliver in rural Washington. With their equipment, know-how and years of utility experience, PUDs have the technical ability to do the job.

Rural communities see the possibilities and are asking their PUDs for help:

  • People in Pacific County did not have local access to the Internet. The local economic development council asked the PUD to provide a solution.
  • When no cable TV company would serve the tiny town of Republic, residents organized a cable association. The struggling association has asked the Ferry County PUD to operate the service.
  • When a Douglas County bank needed a fiber optic connection between two branches, it turned to the local PUD for help.
  • A hospital in Asotin County told the local PUD it wants high-speed telecommunications facilities so it can transmit MRI and CAT scan data. Currently transmission takes 7 hours; fiber optics would cut the time to 7 minutes.

If PUDs are in a position to help rural communities, what’s the hitch? Washington’s PUD law was written in 1930, decades before the Internet was developed. The law simply didn’t anticipate the tremendous technological advances that have taken place in the past seven decades. Neither did the law foresee the convergence of technologies that makes it sensible for a variety of utility services to be delivered by electric utilities. While the statute gives PUDs a broad purpose—"to provide public utility service"—the authorities outlined for PUDs contain some gray areas—at least in some people’s minds.

The law needs to be modernized to make it clear that PUDs can provide the services their customers want.

The state Legislature has an opportunity to address important rural needs without dipping into state revenues. Lawmakers can give communities the ability to use their local PUD to meet their modern infrastructure needs.

Washington’s rural communities shouldn’t have to wait for profit-oriented companies based hundreds—or thousands—of miles away to solve their vital infrastructure problems. Not when a better solution is just down the street in the PUD building.

Steve Johnson is the executive director of the Washington Public Utility Districts Association. The association represents 28 PUDs that provide electricity and water to nearly a third of Washington’s citizens. 

Jim Davis is a Douglas County PUD Commission from the St. Andrews area currently serving in his third term on the Board.