By Marcy Stamper

The 2-percent rate increase the Okanogan County Public Utility District (PUD) commissioners approved for all ratepayers on Monday (July 24) will help pay for $10 million in upgrades to aging infrastructure.

Starting in September, residential customers will pay an additional $1 in their monthly base rate, plus higher rates per kilowatt hour (kWh). That means the bill for the average residential customer using 1,000 kWh per month will go up by $1.79 per month.

Small and large general-service customers will see the same increases. Industrial customers will pay $2 more per month for their base rate as well as higher charges for usage and demand. Irrigators will not pay a higher base charge, but will pay more for power they use.

The PUD enacted the increases to meet both short- and long-term financial goals in what it called a “significant capital renewal plan.”

That plan calls for $10 million in upgrades. Approximately half would pay for a new transformer at the Tonasket substation and a smaller transformer at the Ellisforde-Whitestone substation, which are both 70 years old, said PUD board president Scott Vejraska.

“The Tonasket transformer is working and is not failing, but it’s loaded to the max,” said Vejraska. “Tonasket would be in the dark for about a week if anything happened.”

The other $5 million would pay for replacement of the Brewster-Okanogan transmission line, which was built in the early 1950s. The upgrade will allow the line to carry the additional power from Wells Dam the PUD recently acquired in a long-term contract with Douglas County PUD.

The three upgrades would take about three years, including engineering and construction, with the Tonasket substation as the top priority, said Vejraska.

“We have aging infrastructure. If we don’t do something, there could be a catastrophic failure — we wouldn’t have any lights in the valley,” said Vejraska. “It’s foolish not to take advantage of current low interest rates.”

The wires on the Brewster-Okanogan powerline would be replaced with much larger wires that can transport more power. The power poles would also be replaced.

The PUD intends to take a 30-year loan or issue bonds for the $10 million. The 2-percent rate increase will be used to pay the interest and principal, said Vejraska.

Vejraska said the upgrades are likely to offset some of the cost, by reducing line losses and enabling the PUD to obtain more of the inexpensive power from Wells Dam, which it could then sell on the open market.

Financing for Enloe Dam is not included in the current capital plan. The PUD anticipates borrowing money for Enloe in 2021. Estimates for the dam are $35 million, but because the engineering hasn’t been done, the PUD doesn’t have accurate costs for the project yet, said Vejraska.

“I don’t like rate increases — I hate ’em. I don’t vote for them if I don’t have to,” said Vejraska. “But if history repeats itself and interest rates go back up, people would look at us as not being responsible.”

The new rates take effect Sept. 1, 2017, for most ratepayers, and in April 2018 for irrigators. The PUD has a calculator on its website that allows people to see the effect of the increase on their bill. The calculator can be accessed at www.okanoganpud.org through a link in the news release about the amended rates.