Trump Proposes Selling
by Ted Sickinger
Buried among the revenue-generating ideas in President Donald Trump's new budget proposal is a plan to sell off publicly owned transmission assets, including those operated by the Bonneville Power Administration.
For public power companies – and really all utilities in the Northwest – the proposal will ring alarm bells and resurrect a debate about the control of assets that were built with federal dollars but paid for by local ratepayers.
Bonneville operates three-quarters of the region's high-voltage transmission system, which it uses to market power from 31 hydroelectric dams in the Columbia River Basin and wheel power around the Pacific Northwest and down to California. The system spans 300,000 square miles, and includes more than 15,000 miles of lines and 299 substations that deliver electricity to some 12 million people. The agency provides transmission service to regional utilities, commercial customers and independent power producers, and it provides a slew of other services.
The Trump budget summary contemplates raising $4.9 billion for the U.S. Treasury by selling the BPA's transmission assets from 2018 to 2027. An estimated $1.8 billion is expected in 2019.
Bonneville, like other federal power marketing agencies, is part of the U.S. Department of Energy. The BPA's budget proposal does not include any detailed discussion of the proposal, but simply a line tacked on to its normal budget narrative: "The Budget includes a proposal to authorize the Federal government to sell the transmission assets of Bonneville."
Another reference said, "BPA is considering approaches, in addition to or in lieu of the use of its U.S. Treasury borrowing authority, to sustain funding for its infrastructure investment requirements, including a divestiture of Bonneville's transmission assets."
The BPA referred questions to the Department of Energy, which did not immediately respond to requests for comment. The agency did send out a news release about its overall budget proposal, but that included no mention of the asset sales.
"This budget delivers on the promise to reprioritize spending in order to carry out DOE's core functions efficiently and effectively while also being fiscally responsible and respectful to the American taxpayer," Energy Secretary Rick Perry said in the news release.
The notion of divesting BPA assets isn't new. It is a favorite proposal of conservative think tanks and lawmakers, and has surfaced periodically during the past three decades. But the region's congressional delegation has always managed to beat it back.
Rep. Greg Walden, Oregon's only Republican member of Congress, did not respond to a request for comment. But his office issued a general statement on the budget proposal, saying it "demonstrates President Trump's commitment to balancing the budget and responsibly prioritizing taxpayer dollars."
"The initiatives modernizing our energy infrastructure and promoting our nation's energy abundance would undoubtedly make positive impacts on our constituents' lives. The president's proposals show the difficult choices facing the country as we work to reduce the deficit, protect our security, and grow jobs."
Sen. Ron Wyden on Tuesday blasted the budget summary in general, calling it "Madoff Math" and "a cynical assault on the the fundamental idea that Americans should be there for one another when it counts."
The Oregon Democrat also noted the proposal to sell Bonneville assets, saying it would increase costs for tens of thousands of homes and businesses in the state.
"I successfully fought Republicans' efforts more than a decade ago to privatize Bonneville Power, and I will fight this misguided attempt," Wyden said in a news release. "Public power customers in the Pacific Northwest have paid for the system and their investment should not be put up for sale.
"I'm putting this budget where it belongs – in the trash can."
The Public Power Council, which represents many of the BPA's public utility customers, said it was opposed to the proposal for several reasons, including the loss of regional control and value; the risk of increased costs to consumers; the potential for remote areas of the system to be neglected, harming rural communities; and, impacts to reliability.
"We'll want the details, but the effect appears to be a transfer of value from the people of the Northwest to the U.S. Treasury," said Scott Corwin, the council's executive director. "Electricity consumers in the West have paid to construct and maintain a system that would be sold off to fund the federal government."
The council said utilities in the region were already working toward the modernization of the grid and those efforts are best handled in the region.
learn more on topics covered in the film
see the video
read the script
learn the songs