OPALCO’s ‘shock treatment’ | Guest column

Rate increase graph.

Rate increase graph.

by Chom Greacen

Be warned. Some of us, particularly small electricity users, might be in for an electrifying shock treatment. Electricity prices are going up to the point where some may no longer be able to afford it. Despite OPALCO’s effort to educate its members about the recent electricity rate hike, not many may realize the full implication of the OPALCO’s January 2015 board decision.

The board approved a 12 percent rate increase starting February 2015. The 12 percent increase is to be followed by four more increases at 6 percent each year in the next four years. This means a combined 41 percent increase by 2019, on top of past rate hikes. It is debatable whether a 41 percent increase in electricity rates by 2019 is justified. Even if the proposed massive rise was warranted, there is still the issue of cost allocation and affordability.

The rate impact does not fall on all members equally. In an attempt to recover more fixed costs by increasing the monthly charge (“facility charge”), small users are disproportionately affected by the new rate structure. Small users may see as much as a 160 percent increase in electricity bills by 2019. In comparison, an average resident, with monthly consumption of around 1,000 kilowatt-hours, will see a 38 percent rise, while the increase for larger users will be even less.

The OPALCO board may have good intentions, but their approved tariff structure has two undesirable consequences: 1.) giving disincentives for people to conserve energy (the more you use, the cheaper the total per unit cost of electricity is) and 2.) electricity becoming unaffordable for the low-income population in the county.

The volunteer-based program “Project PAL” provides some assistance but is hardly adequate. The $150 assistance per year from Project PAL pales in comparison to the increase of $589 in fixed charges alone in 2019. PAL can assist only 279 households, about a quarter of eligible households.

Is the board doing enough to ensure affordability for its member-owners? Is affordable electricity service not an important objective of OPALCO? Is OPALCO prioritizing provision of broadband over provision of affordable electricity for all?

These are a set of important questions for all of us member-owners to ask OPALCO’s board of directors. This article deals with affordability and rates. Future articles will raise other issues, such as broadband and risks as the OPALCO election approaches.

This year, two director positions from Orcas are open. Two candidates, Randy Cornelius (recently retired General Manager of OPALCO) and Ed Sutton (chosen by OPALCO search committee), are running against the two incumbents, Winnie Adams and Chris Thomerson.

Chom Greacen lives on Lopez Island.