A Spokane woman is organizing a peaceful protest outside of Avista Corp.’s headquarters on Saturday to draw attention to families’ struggles to pay their power bills.
Jenna Cassidy said she was stunned when she opened her January bill and saw the $163 total – a jump of $70 from the December bill.
“We live in a 900-square-foot house,” Cassidy said. “We keep the thermostat at 65 during the day, and turn it down to 60 at night. … I’ve been talking to other people about their bills, and everyone is outraged.”
The protest will focus on Avista’s latest request for rate hikes. The utility is asking Washington and Idaho regulators to approve electricity and natural gas rate increases that would raise monthly bills an average of $9 to $10 per month.
The Washington Utility and Transportation Commission has 11 months to rule on the applications; the Idaho Public Utilities Commission has seven months.
Cassidy, 24, is a fulltime student at Washington State University. Her husband, Aaron, works in sales, and the couple has a 6-month-old son. This is the first protest the social sciences major has organized.
“I’m a little bit out of my element,” said Cassidy, who has posted a notice about the protest on Craigslist and plans to distribute flyers around Spokane. But she said she can’t “in good conscience” keep quiet. “I want to convey how Avista is affecting families in our community and how upset people are.”
Avista spokeswoman Debbie Simock said many customers were surprised by their latest bills, which reflected a “perfect storm” of conditions. Sub-zero temperatures in December, a longer billing period, and kids out of school for snow days translated into higher energy use for many customers, she said.
In some cases, Avista estimated customers’ December energy use because the meters were buried under snow drifts. Simock said the meters will be read during the next billing cycle. Any overcharged customers will receive a credit, she said.
Simock also encouraged people to take the home energy audit at www.avistautilities.com. The audit will help customers understand how their bills are calculated and where they could save money through adding insulation or other conservation measures.
Cassidy, meanwhile, said she’s still baffled by the size of her Avista bills. When she and her husband lived in Wenatchee, they paid about $40 a month for electricity, which included baseboard heating for a 4-bedroom house.
Wenatchee has a milder climate than Spokane, “but it’s not that much different,” said Cassidy, who moved to Spokane two years ago.
Wenatchee is served by the Douglas County Public Utilities District, which has the region’s cheapest electricity. The utility gets all of its electricity from low-cost hydropower dams, while Avista gets about half of its electricity from dams, Simock said.
Avista used to buy surplus power from mid-Columbia dams, but less of that electricity is available, Simock said. As their customer base grows, other utilities have fewer megawatts for sale. That’s one reason Avista’s electric rates have gone up, she said.
In addition, Avista is embarking on $200 million in capital projects each year, Simock said. That work includes upgrades to substations and transmission lines, as well as replacing 1950s-era turbines at the Noxon Rapids Dam on the Clark Fork River. The new turbines will put out more electricity.
Avista also wants to generate annual returns closer to the 10.2 percent allowed by the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission, the state agency that regulates investor-owned utilities. Dividends for investors are paid out of the company’s returns, Simock said. The profits also flow back into the company to pay for items such as the capital upgrades.
“We realize that this is a difficult time for everyone locally as well as nationally,” Simock said of customers concerned about the proposed rate increase. However, “we also know that we have a lot of elderly investors, and they depend on their quarterly dividends.”
Cassidy remains skeptical. “Those dividends are going into the pockets of somebody that already has established wealth, and taking away from people who need it the most,” she said.
“We’re stretched,” she added. “Right now, our cupboards are bare.”
Cassidy is encouraging Avista customers to “bring a sign, a coat and, most importantly, your voice” to Saturday’s protest, from noon to 3 p.m.