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Wednesday, May 27, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Skeptical crowd wants ‘Idaho first,’ questions Avista sale to Canadian utility

Paul Kjellander, chairman of the Idaho Public Utilities Commission, listens to testimony Thursday in Coeur d'Alene about the proposed sale of Avista to Hydro One. (Becky Kramer / The Spokesman-Review)
Paul Kjellander, chairman of the Idaho Public Utilities Commission, listens to testimony Thursday in Coeur d'Alene about the proposed sale of Avista to Hydro One. (Becky Kramer / The Spokesman-Review)

North Idaho residents expressed deep suspicions Thursday night about the proposed sale of Avista Corp. to a Canadian utility partly owned by the government of Ontario.

“As an American citizen, I don’t think it’s good to have American infrastructure owned by a foreign entity,” Summer Bushnell, a Post Falls resident, told the Idaho Public Utilities Commission.

Another speaker, Glenn Bledsoe of Rathdrum, said he advocated “Idaho First, America First. Keep foreign interests out of our utilities.”

A polite but skeptical crowd questioned how the $5.3 billion sale of Avista to Hydro One of Toronto would benefit Idaho ratepayers.

About 75 people attended the 2 1/2 hour hearing in Coeur d’Alene. It was the last of three hearings held by the Public Utilities Commission, which must give its approval to the sale.

Speakers brought up Canada’s signature on the Paris Climate Accord and tensions between President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau over trade. The recent Ontario elections, where populist leader Doug Ford won a majority, was part of Hayden resident Larry Spencer’s testimony.

The government of Ontario owns a 45 percent stake in Hydro One, and Ford has threatened to fire the chief executive officer and replace the utility’s board of directors.

“It’s subject to not just capitalism, but politics,” Spencer told the commission. “Tumultuous dealings with Hydro One are not new. I’m concerned that they’ll be picking Avista’s board of directors.”

Jeff Tyler, of Coeur d’Alene, said he saw darker influences at play. “It’s all a ruse to bring globalization into our country…to bring a climate change agenda into our state,” he said.

The hearings allowed ratepayers to voice their views on the proposed sale. Later this month, the commission will hold an evidentiary hearing to ask questions of Hydro One and Avista.

Hydro One serves about 1.3 million customers in suburban and rural areas of Ontario. High electric rates in the province, which was the first North American jurisdiction to eliminate all coal-fired electricity, were also mentioned by several speakers.

“Avista is a great company. Turning it over to a foreign company, especially one with the reputation and rates of Hydro One, would be a mistake,” Tim Kastning of Rathdrum told the commissioners. “I can’t see that our rates will stay the same.”

In a recent presentation, the utilities commission staff said Avista and Hydro One would keep separate rate schedules after the sale. The PUC will continue to set rates for Avista’s Idaho customers, and they’ll reflect the cost of providing gas and electric service in Idaho, not Ontario, staff members said in the presentation.

The proposed sale isn’t the first of its kind. PacifiCorp., which serves customers in southern Idaho, merged with ScottishPower in 1999. After the merger, the company was required to provide four years of rate credits to customers. ScottishPower also made commitments for reducing customer outage times. And irrigators got assurance that the utility’s operation of dams on the Bear River and Upper Snake wouldn’t result in changes to water availability for agriculture.

Avista executives didn’t speak at Thursday’s meeting. But at a recent meeting of Washington regulators in Olympia, they said customer protections were put into the sale agreement.

Avista and Hydro One would keep separate books. Funds would not be commingled for setting customers’ rates. State regulators would review financial audits before acting on new rate requests from Avista.

Avista would keep its Spokane headquarters, current workforce and ongoing role in charitable giving and regional economic development.

After the sale, Avista’s new board of directors would retain strong Northwest ties. The nine-member board would have four Avista representatives, two Hydro One representatives and three independent members chosen from the Northwest.

The proposed sale requires approval from regulators in states where Avista operates. Alaska and Montana have signed off on the deal, which is expected to close later this year. Decisions are pending in Washington, Idaho and Oregon.

“Your job is to watch out for ratepayers,” Tyler told the commissioners. “We all seem to be happy with Avista.”

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