Puget Energy's electric grid in Jefferson County could someday become municipally owned, if residents pursue the long and costly path they backed in a vote Tuesday.

Share story

Jefferson County may have initiated a slow march towards independence from Puget Sound Energy.

A ballot measure that would open the door for the county’s public utility district to operate its own electricity grid appeared headed for victory after Tuesday’s vote, though some ballots remain to be counted. Similar measures were losing in Island and Skagit counties.

If the measure triumphs in Jefferson County, it would mark a victory for a grassroots movement that grew in the wake of public concern about plans for a group of foreign investors to buy Puget Energy, the parent company of Washington’s largest electricity provider. It could take years and millions of dollars for Jefferson to break off Puget’s grid — if it happens at all.

“There is a whole bunch of what-ifs,” said Steve Hamm, of Citizens for Local Power, an organization that promoted the measure.

First, the county commissioners must study whether it makes economic sense for the county to form its own electricity company, either by taking over Bellevue-based Puget Energy’s assets or by building its own. If the commissioners decide to buy Puget Energy’s assets, they would have to negotiate or litigate over the price and borrow to finance the purchase.

Cost estimates range between $47 million and $77 million, said Brandon Houskeeper, an analyst with the free-market oriented Washington Policy Center. And Puget Sound Energy is likely to fight tooth and nail to protect the value of its assets. “That’s gonna lead to an elongated legal battle,” Houskeeper said.

It could also take three years for a newly formed government-run utility to get access to cheap power from the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA), said Houskeeper, and longer to complete the entire process.

Puget Sound Energy spokeswoman Martha Monfried said that the company would continue to operate in Jefferson County until then.

There are 23 municipally owned utilities providing electricity in Washington, serving more than a quarter of the state’s population. Many, including Seattle City Light, were formed decades ago.

In a recent study, the Washington Policy Center concluded that a government-run local utility “is not going to save ratepayers a whole lot over what they were paying” with Puget Sound Energy, Houskeeper said.

Hamm said benefits for the local communities would be “extensive.” It would allow the county’s economy to keep between $7 million and $8 million a year in money now paid to Puget, and allow Jefferson to compete with other counties to attract light industry based on cheaper rates. “More money will stay in the county,” Hamm said.

Separately, Puget Energy reported a net quarterly loss of $8.2 million, or 6 cents per diluted share, on Wednesday, versus net earnings of $11.4 million in the same quarter last year. Chief Executive Stephen Reynolds attributed the loss to seasonal lower sales and high construction and maintenance activities.

“Our financial results were consistent with our expectations,” he said.

Ángel González: 206-515-5644 or agonzalez@seattletimes.com