Drought may cause blip in energy rates

Spring snowfalls lessening worries, however

By J.J. Jensen
    Citing low snow pack in the mountains this winter, and with lake and river levels near record lows, Gov. Christine Gregoire last month authorized the Dept. of Ecology to declare a statewide drought emergency.
However, in recent weeks, with the return of traditional rainy weather in western Washington, some in Whatcom County have been asking, ‘What drought?’
    While many in the community are willing to take steps to conserve water and energy this spring and summer, few are expressing much concern about the local impact of drought – at least not yet.
    Meanwhile, regional power companies say they have enough alternatives to snow pack-dependent hydropower that local businesses, such as Bellingham Cold Storage and Georgia-Pacific, should be spared significant energy-cost increases in the next few months.
    “I’m not as sure we’re going to be as impacted by drought as other areas of the state,” said Bellingham /Whatcom Economic Development Council Director Rob Pochert. “As far as an impact on local businesses, I’m not aware of anything significant.”

The drought could also have an impact on local fishers, who are worried river levels will be too low for this year’s spawners.

    Puget Sound Energy (PSE) spokeswoman Dorothy Bracken said utility companies are predicting at least some drought impact and are advising consumers to save electricity now to help offset potential rate increases. However, they still don’t know what those increases will be or to what extent customers will be impacted.
    “We don’t know right now whether we will be in some kind of energy crisis, it’s still a little too soon to tell,” Bracken said. “We’ve been encouraged by recent rains and the last couple of weekends have produced quite a bit of snow pack.”
    Bonneville Power Administration spokesman Ed Mosey said when river levels are low, dams are not as capable of producing hydroelectricity. As a result, this summer, it’s likely energy providers will have to rely on other, more expensive resources such as natural gas, to produce energy.
    “If there’s any effect on industrial customers in the long term it will be in the form of somewhat higher rates,” he said.
    Those increases, Mosey said, wouldn’t take effect until after this summer.
    For PSE customers, Bracken points out, the bulk of her company’s hydropower comes from the middle section of the Columbia River, which is fed by snowmelt in British Columbia.
    “Snow pack in British Columbia was better in the central part of the region vs. the western part of Washington, so we’re not as badly affected as others,” she said.
    Bracken said she doesn’t believe there’ll be an energy crisis similar to the 2001 drought year because snow pack this year isn’t as severe as it was then.
And, echoing Mosey, she said companies now have a more mixed fuel portfolio, including natural gas and coal-fired generation.
    “Should there be a drought, we’re not so dependent on one fuel source,” Bracken said.
    Bellingham Cold Storage CEO Doug Thomas said large, local industrial companies are also now more prepared for an energy crisis than they were several years ago.
    Then, companies that were buying power from the open market were slammed when rates skyrocketed, and some were forced to cut production or, like Intalco, lay off workers.
    BCS, he said, has since entered into an agreement with a regional power company that essentially offers an insurance policy against high rates. BCS now pays a locked price for power rather than worrying about fluctuating costs.
    And if there are ever blackouts, the company has invested several million dollars in natural-gas generators on site that can continue to keep operations running.
    Georgia-Pacific general manager Chip Hilarides said G-P also is locked into a stable power contract, which can provide various sources of power. He doesn’t believe rate increases will affect operations or employment as they did in 2000 and 2001.
    “Since that time, we’ve moved to a different contract system and can go out and buy power from different entities and protect ourselves,” he said.
    Several other local industries, pointing to recent rains, also aren’t ready to cry wolf about a summer drought, and aren’t expressing too many worries about business this summer.

    Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife spokesman Doug Williams said a drought would probably not impact fisheries in the San Juan Islands or Bellingham Bay this year because the effects of drought are more freshwater related.
    If river levels are so low this year that salmon can’t return to spawn, that could impact catches several years from now.
    “The consequence for the future is that the drought could have an impact on spawning activities and that could result in poor survival rates and the number of fish available for harvest in future years down the road,” Williams said.
    In situations when that happens, communities can be effected economically.
    “If there are broad fishing closures in certain areas, you could expect businesses associated with fishing to close,” he said.
    Some in Whatcom County’s raspberry industry believe too much rain recently  could pose a problem.
    “We’re not overly concerned at this point about the drought,” said Henry Bierlink, administrator for the Whatcom County Agricultural Preservation Committee. “Our level of concern would be higher about getting water off our land than finding water to put on it.”
    The City of Bellingham and Public Utility District (PUD) No. 1 of Whatcom Country are also optimistic about avoiding mandatory water-conservation measures this summer.
    “In Whatcom County, we don’t have a drought,” said PUD general manager Tom Anderson, earlier this week. “The way it’s been raining the last few days it’s probably not an issue.”
    City of Bellingham Public Works Director Dick McKinley said water levels on Lake Whatcom, Bellingham’s main water source, have also returned to about where they should be.
    On Monday, he said, the lake was 313.72 feet above sea level, about 1 billion gallons below its optimal height of 314.5 feet above sea level.
    More than a month ago, the level was in the 311s.
    “With any luck, we’ll get that (314.5) in about the next 10 days,” McKinley said on April 4.
    Bellingham residents should still plan on taking water-saving measures this summer, though.
    “We’ll still talk to folks about conservation but most residents here do a good job already,” McKinley said.

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