Because of the British, Your City Light Bill Is Going Up

One of City Light's dams in the North Cascades. Pretty, huh?
Okay, not really, but here's your daily dose of boring City Council debating mixed with a strong dose of nerdiness. Fun!

So, the council is currently considering a proposal by City Light to raise utility rates 8.8 percent next year. The reason: the price of energy is going down.

"Say wha?" you ask.

For those of you who don't know, which is, I think, a lot of us, City Light power comes from water. But in many parts of the U.S. it comes from natural gas. Once power is on the grid, it all looks the same to energy traders. That's because they're not paying for the source, they're paying for the BTUs. Here's where those meddling Brits come in.

BTUs are British Thermal Units. Basically it's the amount of energy it takes to heat one pound of water one degree Fahrenheit. It's not officially in use in the United Kingdom, sayeth all-knowing Wikipedia, but things like air conditioning units are still sold there with a reference to their BTUs.

Of course we insist on sticking to our completely insane and impossible to calculate, divide, convert and generally just a pain in the ass measurement system. Thus, BTUs are the units in which energy is traded here in the good 'ol U.S. of A. Nerd session over.

So here's how those British units relate to natural gas. (Aren't you totally enthralled?)

According to City Light spokesperson Scott Thomsen, we actually have more power than we need, so we supplement our utility prices by selling it to cities that don't have enough. Last year, when City Light was planning its budget for this year, natural gas was trading around $10 to $11 per million BTUs. Natural gas tends to reflect the price of other forms of energy, so City Light planned the budget assuming it could sell energy for at least $8 per million BTUs.

But then the price of natural gas plummeted, now trading around $4 per million BTUs and City Light is short the cash it assumed it would make this year. Hence the request for an 8.8 percent increase.

The council has to approve any rate increases and there's push-back. "I think they are asking for too high of an increase," says Councilmember Bruce Harrell, chair of the Energy and Technology Committee.

Harrell clarifies that he doesn't think anyone is to blame for the revenue shortfall, but he says that at committee meetings in the middle of the summer, City Light staff made presentations saying they were working to get operations and maintenance and capital costs down. But then the utility, in the mayor's proposed budget, asked for line-item increases in both categories. Harrell says he'd like to see the utility work harder to lower those things in the budget before he approves a rate increase.

Public hearings on the rate and other City Light-related items are scheduled to begin Oct. 21. But let's be honest, you don't plan to go to them and neither do I. Still, when our utility bills go up and our friends start bitching about it, we'll be able to whip the term "British Thermal Units" out of our pockets. And as everyone knows, intimate knowledge of obscure units of measure is the key to being the life of any party.

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