Higher power costs expected to affect sewage bills next

By Eric Pryne
Seattle Times staff reporter

Your electricity and natural-gas bills already reflect the skyrocketing cost of energy. Your sewer bill could be next.

King County Metro's Renton sewage-treatment plant is one of the region's biggest users of electricity, and it's paying much more for power now than a year ago.

Last January, the county was paying Puget Sound Energy about $7,000 a day to power the plant's pumps, aerators and heaters.

On Friday, the plant's daily electric bill was about $90,000, said Don Theiler, who heads the county's waste-water-treatment division.

Earlier this week, the division was looking at a sewer-rate increase of up to $2 a month to pay the higher power costs.

That was before the state Utilities and Transportation Commission temporarily capped the rates Puget Sound Energy charges the county and 12 other large industrial customers.

Theiler said the cap would save the county money and keep any sewer-rate increase down; he doesn't yet know how much.

But he and members of the Regional Water Quality Committee say a rate increase is probably unavoidable.

"Unless energy rates come down, I don't see any way around it," Metropolitan King County Councilman Rob McKenna said.

"There will probably be an increase," said Renton Mayor Jesse Tanner. "How much, I don't know."

Committee Chairwoman Louise Miller, a county councilwoman, said the panel is researching the county's legal authority to impose a temporary surcharge, rather than folding the higher costs into a permanent rate increase.

Any increase must be approved by the County Council, which probably will be presented with a proposal within two months, Theiler said.

The county signed a contract with Puget Sound Energy about four years ago that tied the price of electricity for the Renton plant to the daily wholesale market price.

The deal saved money in the beginning, Theiler said, but when the spot price of electricity spiked late last year, the county's bill went through the roof.

Other large industrial customers that had signed similar contracts, including Boeing, Intel and Qwest, found themselves in similar straits.

The County Council appropriated $8 million from reserves just to keep the Renton plant running through December.

Theiler said his division had taken steps to reduce power consumption at Renton.

It is diverting much sewage from the Eastside that usually is treated at Renton to the county's other big plant, at Seattle's West Point, where electricity costs are much lower.

West Point's power is provided by Seattle City Light for a fixed price.

The county also has switched more activity at Renton to the evening, when electricity costs less. And it has installed diesel generators to help power the plant.

But Tanner, Renton's mayor, said neighbors on the hill above the plant are complaining about the noise.