Cheap White Inventory

For local skiers, March was one of the best months in memory. Crystal Mountain reports that, "We received 144 inches of snow; this is the most snow we've received in March in 15 years!"

But snow is an asset not just for ski areas, but for the City of Seattle, too. And the city recently issued an odd press release, authored by both Seattle Public Utilities and Seattle City Light, that hinges on what might be called the snow paradox. On the one hand, the release stated, "The Cedar and Tolt River watersheds have above-normal snowpack for this time of year, [and] the Columbia Basin and Skagit Basin are at 94 and 71 percent of normal, respectively." Sounds good--we've got a bounty of snow.

On the other hand, the release continues, "While Seattleites are likely to have plenty of water for gardening this spring and summer, Seattle City Light has already seen a 50 percent reduction in revenues from the power it sells." (The department is already planning cuts in its operating and capital budget, but no rate hikes for us power users.)

Wait--we've got plenty of snow to sell as future hydropower, but revenues have fallen by half? City Light spokeswoman Suzanne Hartman explains why...

"The energy market is in the tank," says Hartman. "That's about 80 percent of the problem." Ordinarily, she explains, we sell our surplus energy from hydroelectric dams on the Skagit River and elsewhere. A year ago, we were getting $12 for each million BTUs. "Today, it's $4 or less," according to Hartman. "We've seen a two-third drop in wholesale prices. It's supply and demand."

Why the plunging value of our precious Cascade snow? "People are using less energy," says Hartman. And the recession's impact on businesses is surely a major factor. Also, there's a natural gas glut from other states that's competing with our historically cheaper hydroelectric power.

At present, all City Light can do is hope for a demand surge later this year--like a heat wave in California that requires more watts for all those air-conditioners. In the meantime, we're adding to our snow inventory. Says Hartman, "We definitely were helped by this late surge." As also the skiers have been helped--Crystal has extended its daily schedule through Sunday, April 19.

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