Kate Riley / Times staff columnist
Fresh faces, renewed focus for Seattle City Light
Seattle Times editorial columnist
More power to the new City Light superintendent, who has agreed to rehabilitate City Light's bottom line while serving many masters — his direct boss, the mayor; his policy-makers, the City Council, and his advisers, the new Energy Advisory Board. And then there's Seattle's dazzling scenery, the mountains and Puget Sound.
"The views are such a clear and omnipresent reminder of what a beautiful area we live in and why we want to preserve it," the New Jersey transplant says.
Carrasco faces a daunting challenge of ensuring his dream job doesn't return to the nightmare that precipitated the utility's 58-percent power rate increases, scathing criticism by an energy consultant and the departure of his predecessor. Decade-old council policies of taking on debt to keep rates low left the utility unprepared for the wild ride of the Western energy crisis of 2000-'01.
Last year, rates remained high and fingers were pointed. A council-hired consultant and mayor-convened committee agreed there was plenty of blame to go around and suggested some drastic changes. A majority of council members at odds with the new iron-fisted mayor signaled they would not reconfirm his City Light superintendent, who resigned. Three council incumbents were defeated in November.
Things were such a mess, I was pessimistic the city would find anyone smart enough to grasp the challenges of City Light, including its politics, yet fearless enough to take it on.
Carrasco seems to be the right guy for the job. He's a shrewd student of City Light's past mistakes, a supporter of the new Energy Advisory Board's ambitious recommendations and seems willing to assertively engage his decision-makers in the prickly and political business of setting priorities and paying the consequences. Past councils opted for contrary superlatives: the lowest rates and the most aggressive energy conservation, which led them to borrow to accommodate both.
Carrasco's fresh start coincides with a fresh start for the utility. The newly constituted City Council unanimously confirmed him, and both will benefit from the recommendations from the new energy advisory board. Their report is heavy on adherence to energy industry "best practices" — healthy reserves, shrewd risk management policies, rate stabilization and debt reduction.
The recommendations are ambitious. For instance, the report urges the utility to reduce its debt-to-capital ratio from 90 percent to an industry "best practices" standard of between 50 and 60 percent.
Another person to take on a job I couldn't imagine anyone wanting is new Councilwoman Jean Godden, now the chair of the council's energy and environmental committee. The former Seattle Times newspaper columnist seems undeterred by what's required for the utility to get back on sound financial footing.
"There will be a lot of heavy lifting," says Godden. "But we have a lot of people to help do it."
Advisory board member Maura L. O'Neill remembers the innovative thinking that went into Seattle City Light's shaping of its values of conservation and sound energy planning in the late 1970s when she was a utility environmental analyst. For the utility to find its way back will take attentiveness even after the urgency of its current plight is passed. O'Neill is optimistic, but realistic.
"This is going to be tough enough to do even if we have everyone on the same page," she says.
That lack of attentiveness was a key criticism by the council's consultant and the mayor's committee. The advisory board's recommendation that the council engage in biennial review of its integrated resources planning would help, and the council should take that advice especially.
First priority should be ensuring the utility is back on sound footing before rates are lowered significantly. For too many years, utility customers enjoyed rates kept artificially low through debt. It's now time to pay that off.
Although Western energy rates have stabilized, experts say the market remains volatile. Political forces from outside the region also have designs on the Northwest power benefit of low-cost hydroelectric power. And scientists say that global warming over time will adversely affect Northwest snow pack, which ultimately will affect hydropower dams.
The energy crisis gave City Light a rude pinch that should be heeded. Now's the time to ensure the utility will be flexible enough for the next challenge, no matter what that is.
Kate Riley's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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