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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Opinion >  Editorial

Editorial: Before Avista pulls up its roots, regulators and customers will have a say

Remember the Washington Water Power Co.?

It’s still here, but as Avista after a 1999 rebranding that confused and irked a community that had grown up side-by-side with its utility for more than a century. Love it or hate it, WWP was ours.

But that bond was shaken when huge losses trading electricity during the 2000-2001 energy crisis pushed Avista into a financial corner.

In order to recoup those losses, and to let Avista remain independent, the Washington and Idaho utility commissions granted the company unprecedented double-digit rate increases.

The warm and fuzzy aspects of the community/utility relationship frayed badly.

The rate hikes have continued, and the sting has not gone away.

But Avista management, including the team in place today, has done an excellent job restoring the company’s standing in the region.

Handsome Avista Stadium and the Gathering Place overlooking the Spokane River Falls are obvious manifestations of the company’s civic presence. Its broad support for education, medical facilities and the arts gets less notice, but is at least as important.

There are dozens of ways Avista contributes to the Inland Northwest, but it remains a small utility in a big-utility world. Barring the unforeseen, that’s going to change.

Hydro One’s proposed $5.3 billion purchase of Avista comes as a shock.

The deal announced Wednesday is unquestionably good for shareholders – at $53 per share, Hydro One is paying roughly 20 percent above Tuesday’s market price – but what about the people and communities that have looked to Avista for electricity and natural gas, and much more besides?

The deal faces a gantlet of state and federal reviews. Luckily for Washington ratepayers, this will not be the Utilities and Transportation Commission’s first go-round with an acquisition involving foreign participation.

Puget Sound Energy was purchased in 2009 by a consortium that included Canadian and Australian partners. The UTC approved the transaction, but with 78 conditions intended to protect customers, the environment, and assure financial soundness.

All Washington ratepayers are further protected by an updated state law that requires a utility sale be a “net benefit to the customers of the company.” Hydro One’s commitment to double spending on community initiatives suggests it will generously comply.

So it may well be that the region’s ratepayers and communities are best-served by this acquisition, which also provides for a local board of directors.

Constant regulatory vigilance will be necessary, but can only do so much.

With ownership based in Toronto, Avista, the iconic Spokane company, will be gone.

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