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Power users may get $3 credit

Avista electricity customers will receive a $3 monthly bill credit beginning next fall if a settlement regarding an arcane federal power program holds together.

The credit is not part of Avista’s pending rate case. Rather, it is funded by the Bonneville Power Administration, the agency that markets electricity from the federal government’s massive Northwest dams.

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals erased the cash credit last summer that had benefited Avista and the six other shareholder-owned utilities in the Northwest. The effect of losing the credit was that Avista customers’ bills rose an average of $5.23 a month in Eastern Washington and $6.03 in North Idaho, said company spokesman Hugh Imhof. The $3 monthly credit would instead increase bills by $2.23 in Washington, and $3.03 in Idaho.

The benefit had been Bonneville’s way of sharing the financial bounty created by the dams with all Northwest residents. The program, called the Residential Exchange, distributed about $300 million and was called too generous by public utility districts – most notably Seattle City Light, Snohomish County PUD, Tacoma Power, and others including Spokane-based Inland Power & Light.

The settlement between public utility districts and Avista and the other investor-owned utilities, including Portland General Electric, Pacific Power, Puget Sound Energy, Idaho Power, Rocky Mountain Power, and Northwestern Energy, would lower the exchange program amount to about $220 million.

And it puts the onus on Bonneville to rewrite its rules next year in a way that would comply with the appeals court ruling, said Larry La Bolle, Avista’s director of federal and regional affairs.

Politics played a role in the settlement. The investor-owned utilities sell power to about 3.35 million customers and lend political muscle against outside interests that want the benefits of Bonneville shared outside the Northwest.

The $3 credit – on average – would be the latest component of utility bill arithmetic for Avista customers. This particular piece would appear on bills beginning next fall – although there may be an interim plan that would reinstate the credit much sooner.

The Bonneville giveback has nothing to do with a different settlement that would bump Avista’s electricity rates by 9.4 percent beginning in January. That is a separate measure agreed to by the company and state regulatory staff that still requires approval by the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission.