Back in 2003 first-term Seattle City Council member Heidi Wills was defeated for re-election by what I still regard as one of the most dishonest campaigns this city has seen. Her opponent relentlessly blamed Wills, who chaired the council’s Energy and Environmental Policy Committee, for dramatic Seattle City Light rate increases in 2000 and 2001. As Heidi Wills seeks to return to the council I want to remind voters of why these attacks were deceitful, and discourage 2019’s candidates from repeating such false claims.
Her opponent’s campaign billboards proclaimed Wills was “Rate-Hike Heidi”, picturing her, damningly, wearing a City Light hard hat. The truth is that Wills had the thankless task of cleaning up a mess entirely of others’ making. Blaming her for City Light’s rate increases was like blaming the fireman for the fire. Let me explain.
City Light’s rate increases were, in large measure, collateral damage from the California electricity crisis of 2000-2001. Three factors combined to push wholesale power prices in California to stratospheric levels.
- An ill-designed partial deregulation of California wholesale power markets was adopted in 1996 and phased in over the next four years;
- Severe droughts stressed power supply all along the West Coast; and
- The (literally) criminal bosses of Enron, and other market manipulators, took advantage of #1 and #2 to artificially inflate prices, to their immense short-term profit.
This perfect storm sent a tsunami of inflated power prices rolling outward from California; City Light was hit hard. The utility was especially affected because of decisions taken in the late 1990s that reduced City Light’s supplies of “firm” power and increased reliance on power purchased on the open market. City Light sold its ownership share of the output pf the Centralia coal-fired power plant — an environmental improvement in the utility’s power portfolio, but the power were not immediately replaced with a firm resource or contract. Then the utility voluntarily reduced the amount of power it took under a firm contract from the federal Bonneville Power Administration and, again, did not have a firm replacement supply.
Of course, we all blamed California and Enron, but there was some legitimate local blame as well for decisions that left City Light so exposed to market volatility and manipulation. A reasonable person could have blamed the mayors and council members — especially the energy committee members – who served during the mid- to late 1990s. A reasonable person could have blamed City Light’s senior management.
That reasonable person could even try blaming me. I was a City Light executive from 1992 to 1999, first as director of energy management services and then as director of strategic planning. I would argue that I was more prescient than most about the perils of market volatility and the rapaciousness of Enron, but that prescience didn’t insulate the utility from market exposure.
I left City Light in October of 1999 and headed off to India and Nepal. A month later Heidi Wills was elected and, fatefully, assigned by her council colleagues to head the energy committee. When, the next May, the storm broke, among the victims was at least one wholly innocent person: Heidi Wills. She had been working for King County before her election and had literally nothing to do with California’s or Seattle’s energy decisions. She did her best with the terrible hand she was dealt. In addition to unavoidable short-term rate increases she helped buffer the pain with an expansion of low-income energy assistance. She worked to institute a new, higher “third tier” rate for the utility’s biggest power consumers. She pushed City Light towards more aggressive acquisition of new renewable resources.
Heidi Wills’ bid to return to the council, sixteen years later, will be contested by several other candidates and District 6 voters will make their own judgements and decisions. But Wills’ record on energy matters in her first term is to her credit. None of her opponents should even consider repeating 2003’s baseless attacks.