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Trump Budget Proposes to Sell off Part of Northwest Power Transmission

President Trump’s proposed budget includes a provision that would have a major impact on the Northwest electricity industry. The idea is the federal government would sell many of the Northwest electric transmission assets to private industry. That includes those huge metal towers you see from the highway and all the lines that connect them. The system is currently operated by the Bonneville Power Administration. That’s a non-profit entity based in Portland. It was created by the federal government to sell the power created by more than 30 dams in the Northwest. Tom Karier is the eastern Washington representative on the Northwest Power and Conservation Council.

“What the Trump administration is proposing is like foreclosing on a mortgage. It’s like, if you bought a house and you took out a mortgage and you paid it back for 20 years and you’re about ready to make the last payments and the bank simply forecloses and they take the house away and they sell it to somebody who then rents the house to you. We’ve been paying off this mortgage and debt on this power system for 60-70 years," Karier said. "It’s really an unfair deal. It doesn’t recognize what’s going on in  power markets and it’s real threat to the Northwest.”

Karier says the proposal isn’t new and it isn’t surprising. He says similar ideas have been floated by past presidents and fought by the region’s congressional members. He says this proposal would affect only the transmission system; it wouldn’t lead to a sell-off of the federal dams on the Columbia and Snake Rivers. But even so, he says it would send huge ripples throughout the West.

“The entire West Coast is connected through those lines," Karier said. "Bonneville owns and manages three-quarters of those transmission lines, so trying to privatize those would be a massive change and cost billions of dollars and transfer of ownership. And it’s a huge cost to ratepayers in the Northwest. We essentially use the federal government as a bank. We borrowed money from them to build up this huge system over 60-70 years and then we systematically pay it back. When it’s all paid up, it will be a Northwest system.”

Karier says the proposal would affect mostly public utilities that buy power directly from Bonneville. But it would also affect private utilities such as Avista that use those transmission lines to move electricity from one place to another. He says ownership changes would certainly lead to changes in transmission costs, which would trickle down to our monthly bills.

“There’s one other troubling aspect of it, though, which is to limit the borrowing authority of Bonneville. And that just arbitrarily caps their ability to borrow money anywhere, from the federal government or the private sector and that really ties the hands of Bonneville to provide adequate and reliable service to the Northwest ratepayers," Karier said. "If we need to build a new transmission line for security and adequacy, we need to be able to borrow the money and pay it back. So it’s putting in jeopardy the reliability of electric power to Northwest ratepayers.”

One other group speaking out in opposing the president’s proposal is the Northwest Energy Coalition, which sometimes opposes Bonneville’s actions in operating the federal river system in the Northwest. Fred Huette is the coalition’s senior policy associate.

“On the whole, we all see it as an important regional resource. And we always have had our differences of opinion or complaints about what they do, but underneath it, it’s an agency that’s been around for a long time since the late 1930s and is providing an incredibly important set of services and resources for the Northwest,” Heutte said.

He says the proposal comes at a time of great change in the Northwest power markets, with an increasing amount of energy coming from renewable resources such as wind and solar. And he says the transmission system is undergoing changes to become more efficient.

“Although I think we all hope that this idea will go away, we have to be very sure that the region stands up and unifies and says he won’t want this, we don’t need this, it’s a bad idea," Heutte said. "That has happened in the past and it can happen again and better for it to happen right away."

Washington Republican Congresswoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers today said she opposes selling Bonneville Power’s assets and that she and her colleague, Washington Republican Jaime Herrera Beutler, are sending a letter of concern to federal budget director Mick Mulvaney.