When we turn on the switch for our lights, they come on. Simple.

Or water heats up, ice cream stays frozen, the pump for the well starts up.

But how is this magic accomplished? It's only when we're hit with one of our powerful winter storms - and the power goes off - that we think about power.

You can't get too far on the subject of energy in the Pacific Northwest without talking about the mighty Columbia. It was an engine for commerce in our area long before the white man arrived; and it continues to be both a highly-prized natural resource and a source of great controversy.

What is a PUD anyway? How does that river power make its way into our homes? And what was this 'Fuel Mix Disclosure' form that appeared in our electric bills a couple weeks ago?

Over a cup of Joe (one of my favorite energy sources), Diana Thompson, our Public Utility District Commissioner, tries to answer some of these questions.

"At our Pacific County PUD, we get all of our power from the Bonneville Power Administration. Generally that means that most of what we use is generated by the hydroelectric system. However, there are times when there is not enough hydro to provide all that we, and other users, need. So, Bonneville has to go to the market to make up the difference."

OK - let's back up a minute and decode some of that.

A public utility district is a non-profit organization that provides its community with electricity, water, sewer, or in some cases broadband telecommunications. Our Pacific County PUD provides power and broadband.

It all started in 1881 when the steamer Willamette, with newly-invented voltaic arc lights, pulled into Elliott Bay in the Washington Territory ... but we'd better not go back that far.

The PUD story started in 1927 when rural folks, being charged big bucks by private or municipal electric companies, decided to take matters into their own hands. Local granges gathered 61,000 signatures (they only needed 30,000) and asked the Washington State legislature for permission to create PUDs. When the legislature failed to act, the PUD question became the first-ever voter-initiated ballot measure in our state.

On Nov. 4, 1930, the measure was approved by 152,487 to 130,901 and became law. Now, Washington has 28 PUDs; more than any other state in the union except Nebraska.

Every PUD is managed by locally-elected commissioners. Our Pacific County PUD was created, with a flurry of others, in 1934. Talk about 'power to the people.'

Doug Miller, the 30-plus year PUD manager, puts it this way, "All but one of our employees live and work in Pacific County. In fact, most all of us are home-grown, born and raised right here."

As Thompson says, "Our PUD is a tremendous resource for the community. Doug knows so much about energy. Basically it's people saying 'we're going to provide power for ourselves and our neighbors.'"

In 1937, the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) was created by Congress. BPA sells electric power produced by the 31 federally-owned dams in the Columbia River watershed, extending north into Canada and south into Oregon.

Most of these dams were built by the Army Corps of Engineers just prior to and just after WWII - the same period when folk singer Woody Guthrie was commissioned by the BPA to write songs about the Columbia Basin projects. "Roll On Columbia" and "Grand Coulee Dam" are two of those songs.

The Grand Coulee, where seven workers died during construction, is twice as tall as Niagara Falls and has enough concrete to build a four-foot wide by four-inch deep sidewalk twice around the equator (so says Wikipedia).

I remember visiting the Grand Coulee Dam in the '50s and watching the water pour over the enormous spillway - in my humble seven-year-old opinion, the colored lights at night were the best part of the show.

Of course, now I know that the Grand Coulee stopped salmon in their tracks.

No migration is possible above the dam; and even though we got smarter on dams lower on the river and put in fish-ladders, many folks say that when our lights go on, we're "burning salmon." It's water coming through those wires.

As river water rushes through spillways, a process of spinning turbines transforms the energy into electricity. This power gets 'distributed,' or sent other places, over BPA's more than 15,000 miles of transmission lines and passes through one or more of its 300 substations. (A substation either brings high voltage power down into useable residential chunks or beefs it back up to be sent elsewhere.)

Part of the cost of energy is moving it around.

In Washington, the combination of our amazing power system - the Columbia River - and our locally-controlled non-profit PUD-network, means that we have some of the lowest energy rates in the nation.

We pay roughly 6 cents per kilowatt hour in the Pacific Northwest. New York City dwellers pay 12 to 14 cents/kilowatt hour and Southern CA residents pay 10 to 12 cents, according to Miller.

And when Thompson says that during peak times - like morning showers when our hot water heaters are pumping, or in the evening when every appliance in the house is on - BPA "goes to the market" to get energy, she means our river system is maxed out and BPA has to buy power from somewhere else, always at a higher price.

At night, when the need for energy goes down, "BPA can actually turn the river off," says Thompson, "and save that generating power for a time when it's more needed."

Our power mix, provided by our power-broker BPA and included, by law, in our recent electric bills, is 84 percent hydro; 10 percent nuclear; 2.5 percent coal; 1.9 percent wind; 1 percent natural gas; and even smaller amounts from burning biomass or other waste materials.

But it's that 84 percent you should think about and be grateful for, maybe the next time you drive over the Megler Bridge.

Stay tuned next week when we discuss under-grounding transmission lines, last year's storm damage, fish versus food versus power, and miscellaneous other issues in our Pacific County energy future.

Hot off the press, literally: Lucille Downer's new book "Lucille Downer's Family and Friends' Favorite Recipes" is cookin'. Our favorite nonogenarian, Lucille, will be signing books at Jimella's Seafood Market on Saturday, Oct. 25, from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., Lucille writes the 'Taste of the Peninsula' column weekly in The Observer and has been collecting recipes for decades.

Don't miss this chance to get a signed and collectible compilation of Downer family recipes.

Lastly, don't forget about the Tilth on the Willapa, 'locavore' dinner and evening conversation from 5:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m., Thursday, Sept. 25, at the Senior Center, Klipsan Beach. The dinner will feature foods produced exclusively on the Peninsula (if you have anything from your garden that you'd like to contribute, let us know).

The evening program will be kicked off with a keynote by Sandy Bradley, on the topic of local food security and why it should matter to us.

Nanci Main will follow with a facilitated Open Space forum focusing on the question, 'How we can support one another in increasing our food production on the peninsula?' If you're a gardener, or want to be, come find your kin, harvest some gardening tips, or share your expertise with others.

Call Sandy for more info, to drop off produce for the dinner, or to RSVP - 665-2926.

If you've got news for the good of the community or an interesting idea that you'd like to share, send a note to Cate Gable at (categable@aim.com).

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