Business


Caldwell: Wright’s calming influence refreshing

SUNDAY, NOV. 14, 2010

Steve Wright was appointed interim administrator of the Bonneville Power Administration Nov. 15, 2000.

You could forgive him for not saying thanks. The agency was on the threshold of its worst year ever.

Stream flows were the second-lowest since 1937. The loss of hydropower set off a bidding war that at times drove wholesale electricity prices to more than $1,000 per megawatt-hour, 50 times normal. The region averted blackouts, but at a cost.

In his initial annual report, Wright reported a $3.7 billion loss, the largest in the agency’s history and possibly bigger than those from all previous years combined. Bonneville, which sells power generated by federal dams and the region’s one nuclear plant, raised rates 45 percent.

Yet in his 2001 annual report to the president, Wright said he was “exceptionally proud” of what the agency and its employees had accomplished in “an extraordinarily challenging year.”

The challenges remain, and so does Wright, now the second-longest-serving administrator in Bonneville’s 73-year history. There is no fixed term to the appointment, but Wright has weathered the transition from Democratic administration to Republican and back again without much competition.

He was hired by Bonneville in 1981 and has spent his entire career with an agency that touches almost everyone in the Northwest by providing electricity, supporting salmon restoration and other services.

He stands by his 2001 comments. And despite the tough calls made then – the rate increases, shutting down the region’s aluminum smelters, and interrupting water spills meant to help fish passage – Wright has rebuilt trust in Bonneville. Satisfaction with the agency’s performance exceeds 90 percent among all stakeholders, including the region’s many tribes, and public and private utilities.

At Avista Utilities, which has locked horns with Bonneville over its share of federal system benefits, Chairman Scott Morris says Wright’s focus on collaboration has benefited everyone.

Inland Power and Light Co. Chief Executive Officer Kris Mikkelsen marvels at Wright’s grasp of all things Bonneville and his ability to juggle the region’s internal and external interests.

“He’s been a real steady hand at the helm,” she says.

Wright says keeping all Bonneville’s constituencies content satisfies him more than anything else he has accomplished, from overcoming the energy crisis to launching ambitious construction programs to assuring the benefits of the federal assets continue to serve the Northwest first.

He says he tries to run Bonneville as a business, but one focused on meeting the public’s needs, not on generating profits.

A good thing, because Wright expects another year of operating losses, the third in a row, that will necessitate a rate increase next year and new ways of managing Bonneville’s financial reserves.

Tough calls, but Wright says predecessors Peter Johnson, who shut down a disastrous nuclear construction program in the 1980s, and Randy Hardy, who endured a customer revolt over rates in the 1990s, faced bigger problems.

Any day, he says, he could get a call from the Secretary of Energy telling him his term is over.

He says he has not given much thought to what he might do next, except that he would like to continue serving the public, as he has for almost 30 years at Bonneville.

“I love Bonneville,” Wright says. “I was almost born to work here.”



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