Back in 2008, Jefferson County residents took a gamble by voting to give the Jefferson County Public Utility District the opportunity to acquire utility giant Puget Sound Energy’s holdings in …
Back in 2008, Jefferson County residents took a gamble by voting to give the Jefferson County Public Utility District the opportunity to acquire utility giant Puget Sound Energy’s holdings in the surrounding area. And boy did it pay off.
Since finalizing the power purchase for $103 million in 2013, the move marked the first private-to-public transfer of utility services for more than half a century in Washington state.
Celebrating that achievement and a decade of serving the community, the local utility district held a luncheon Tuesday to commemorate
10 years of hard work keeping the lights on.
“The PUD is to the point now where we can look forward to the future, to become more resilient and support the community,” General Manager Kevin Streett said in a phone interview with The Leader. “We would like to thank the community for their support.”
Whether it’s the ongoing installation of “smart meters” to better track utility costs and power outages, the PUD ensuring that nearly 96 percent of its public power arrives from carbon-free, non-emitting sources, or a host of ongoing projects to better serve Jefferson County, the utility authority continues to pave a path to success. But it wasn’t always that easy.
After county residents passed Proposition 1 — authorizing the utility authority to pursue the acquisition of Bellevue-based Puget Sound Energy’s electrical grid — PUD commissioners had only entered the foothills of the mountainous planning and purchasing process that entails setting up a utility district.
One of those trailblazing local commissioners was Barney Burke, who stepped into the role following the sudden passing of late commissioner Dana Roberts in 2009.
Recalling the early days, Burke spoke on the process to become a utility and the rigorous road to success.
“You need three things to start a utility; financing, the grid, and actual power, clean power,” Burke said. “To get all those to work in a certain timeframe, a lot had to align … we had like eight employees.”
One of those original employees — who still works as the utility’s line foreman — was Eric Tharaldsen. He grew up in Quilcene and worked for the Clallam County Public Utility District for 24 years before taking a chance on the fledgling utility one county over.
“It was rough at the beginning, being a new utility [district],” Tharaldsen said.
Few underdog stories tend to come to fruition in the real world, but the PUD eventually was able to purchase Puget Sound Energy’s electrical system in the county in 2010. The last time a private-to-public power transfer was completed in Washington was in 1949.
After years of planning and preparation, the young utility district finally flipped the switch in April 2013, taking the reins on Jefferson County’s power infrastructure.
Whether it was navigating the power infrastructure set up by an entirely different entity or managing outages and other troubles with a skeleton crew, there were growing pains along the way.
But the PUD prevailed.
Recalling President John F. Kennedy’s famed moon quote, Burke found similarities between the American Apollo 11 mission and the PUD’s efforts.
“We didn’t do it because it was easy, we did it because it was hard,” Burke said. “It was an honor to make it happen. Everyone worked so hard on it, and the benefits continue to accrue.”
“It takes a whole team of people rowing the boat; people with different skills,” Burke added.
On the line crew side, it took some time but was much smoother sailing once the utility district collected a longterm, core crew of workers.
“We’re definitely moving in the right direction,” Tharaldsen said.
In many ways, the PUD embodies the community-first attitude present in east Jefferson County.
“Really to me, the thing that set us apart was that Puget Sound Energy didn’t have crews here, they weren’t apart of our everyday lives,” Streett said.
“The PUD on other hand, is part of community. We live here and send our kids to school here.”
“Early believers wanted local control and local jobs; those things have been done,” Streett added.
“I think a lot of people in Jefferson County look at these global issues like energy and realize the advantage of having say in what the future could be,” Burke said.
At the end of the day, the PUD’s efforts in the county have not only led to more jobs and better utility services, but also a positive impact on the local economy.
“We are local, and we don’t have a problem putting investments back into the local economy,” Streett said.
Much of that stringent planning, local input, and hard work has culminated into where the utility authority is now, with multiple projects on the way.
One of those is broadband internet, a long-time ask from many in the county. The project will involve building out a fiber network across east Jefferson County in Quilcene, Discovery Bay, Gardiner, and parts of Chimacum, with plans to connect more than 1,600 households and businesses to high-speed internet. Construction for the broadband project could begin as early as fall 2023.
Another venture has been the utility district’s “smart meter” project, installing new meters to better serve customers during power outages with more precise data.
“We’ve been very lucky to have commissioners and elected officials that have governed us over the last
10 years, and had the patience to let us grow,” Streett said. The PUD will “continue to grow and look forward to the future.”
The general manager offered advice to any counties looking to make the private-to-public switch.
“Anyone looking to take over like we did, you have to be able to grow and have patience,” Streett said. “It isn’t easy, but it’s well worth the effort to put in.”