Steve Wright will step down as administrator of the Bonneville Power Administration at the end of the year.
Wright inherited the job from a predecessor who left to take a much more lucrative position in the private sector.
In November 2000, the West Coast was on the threshold of perhaps its greatest energy crisis. An early runoff left the Northwest high and dry. Record heat sent demand in California soaring just as officials implemented the worst-thought-out deregulation program of all time. And right in the middle was Enron Corp. and other energy traders who pounced with “Star Wars” and other schemes that drove electricity prices to more than 50 times normal levels.
Bonneville, which sells 40 percent of the Northwest’s electricity and transmits 70 percent, was struggling to balance the interests of its utility customers, the aluminum industry and fisheries. Within a year, most of the region’s aluminum smelters were shuttered, and Bonneville had imposed a 46 percent rate increase. There were more increases to come.
With the crisis passed, Wright remained chief referee among regional interests that prize what is still some of the cheapest electricity in the United States. And there are new contestants, like the wind-power industry, barely a factor a decade ago but now a source of more than 4,000 megawatts of power – when the wind blows.
At one time or another, just about every faction has taken Bonneville to court over one slight or another: an unjust split of power between public and private utilities; not enough water for fish; not enough transmission capacity for wind farms; too little money for conservation. Yet the utilities have learned to fend more for themselves, there have been unprecedented runs of some fish stocks in recent years, and more windmills dot the hillsides.
The agency and its customers have become leaders in conservation.
Bonneville celebrates its 75th anniversary next month, and the agency and the region continue to confront new problems and learn new lessons.
Not that all of the problems have been solved. The fight over a satisfactory plan for increasing runs of salmon and steelhead continues in federal court, with momentous implications for dam operations and navigation.
Wright has earned a reputation as a square dealer, and one who has retained his political support through Republican and Democratic administrations. As someone promoted from within Bonneville, he did not have the political patron or patrons who engineered some of the previous appointments.
When he had to, Wright acted decisively, cutting off water for fish in the desperate days of 2000-2001, for example, or shutting wind farms down when the transmission grid could not handle the additional load.
Wright has been at the controls for 12 years, making him the second-longest serving among Bonneville administrators, who run an agency that touches every life in the region. Wright jumped in at a particularly challenging time. The challenges have never stopped, and he’s been up to every one.