Jennifer Robertson – A-
In 2015, Robertson was the only council member who voted against PSE’s Lake Hills Transmission Line that will destroy hundreds of trees on 148th Avenue in East Bellevue. However, she recently recused herself from voting on appeals to PSE’s Energize Eastside project, citing conflicts of interest with her family’s business. Robertson is an experienced land use attorney who could have informed the discussion about those appeals.
Here are Robertson’s transcribed and graded answers to each of our questions.
1. Should city government be more involved in energy project planning beyond land use?
So I just wanted to be clear, since we’re on the record, that this conversation today has nothing to do at all with the Energize Eastside project. We are not discussing that, and nothing we discuss today is related to that.
So with that said, you wanted to know about what specific ideas on energy planning that I bring to the city. Well, there’s been a few things that I’ve done over my 16 years as a policy maker in the City of Bellevue. One was when I worked on the Comprehensive Plan for utilities. We talked about undergrounding and making sure that distribution lines are put underground. Transmission lines, as we know, are very difficult to put underground. They’re very expensive to put underground. But we wanted to push to make sure that distribution lines were put underground if they’re new lines or if transmission lines are added to those corridors.
We also put in place policies around substations to make sure that they fit into the neighborhoods better. I did a substation or two where we looked at the substations. The Lochleven substation was on my agenda, I think when I was on the planning commission, and we made sure that we had the exterior components of that fit with the neighborhood better so that it reduced the sound of the hum of the substation. The Phantom Lake substation is another example where it was nicely cladded on the outside to reduce the visual impact as well as the noise impact. So those are some of the things that we’ve done.
We’ve also done the electrical reliability study, trying to make sure that we have more reliable electricity. That became very urgent after the Hanukkah Eve storm. In Somerset, I was out [of electricity] for 16 hours, but there were people further down the hill that were out for eight days. Bridle Trails in particular has had some reliability [issues]. Somerset’s had some of reliability issues. So trying to make sure that we have more redundancies in the system has been an important component of work that we’ve done to interact with our utility provider.
Including the annual meetings, which we luckily have now moved out of the summer period so that more people can attend them. So we’ve been trying to make sure that there’s a lot of transparency with our provider and the city, and we make sure that the facilities that do go in, go in a way that both provide the reliability and provide the mitigation to the extent possible. But you’re right, we are not the regulators on utilities. That is the state.
2. Do flat forecasts for electricity demand have policy implications?
We’re definitely going to have to be looking at how to make things cleaner. I know that there is a tension at the state level, and probably federally too, between cleaner energy grids and keeping rates low. The Colstrip [coal] plant in Montana is one example, where all the people that are in the city [that has] the plant don’t want it to close because it provides jobs for those folks. But it is one of the dirtiest coal plants in the nation. And so I think it’s really good that is transitioning to closing. It’s going to have an impact on rates. So I think that people who are experts at utility planning need to figure out a way to transition in a way that can smooth the rate curve so that as changes are made, they’re done incrementally, so that it’s not putting people literally out in the cold because all of a sudden their electrical bill goes from $100 a month to $200 a month. I think it needs to be looked at very carefully.
The dams situation is another example. That’s a really clean energy source, and yet there’s pressure to get rid of some of the dams for the issues of the fish, which is in tension with our effective and cheap energy source. That is not my expertise at all, but it seems to me that there needs to be thoughtful discussion and compromise to make sure that we can get the clean energy we need, while we don’t wreck our system, especially with regard to the hydroelectric.
The energy storage is really exciting. I think that’s the new wave and it seems like a lot is happening in that. But again, you have to look at it from an environmental perspective. For example, I just recently read that the life cycle of a Tesla uses more carbon than a life cycle of a brand new combustion engine car, right? Those are not issues that we necessarily grapple with at the city level, but those are big policy issues that people need to look at. How are we going to make sure that we have reliable energy? Because reliable energy keeps people healthy and safe, for one, and it also provides the basis of our industry and our economy. So how we do that is not completely clear to me, but what is clear to me is that technology is changing, and that we need to make sure that we continue to adapt with it and let it work. But not making sudden moves. The industry with the help of government is going to figure out how to do it the most effectively. I think, I hope!
I don’t know if you have read about in Australia, they’re doing a lot of really interesting work down there. They have figured out a way to remove carbon from the air and make it a solid flake. Now that’s only done in the lab. And then you can use that flake to energize as more energy. I mean, that’s the kind of thing that in 20 years, the way that we get energy is going to be very different. But if I had a crystal ball, I’d be really rich, I would know what’s happening. I think it’s going to be really exciting!
How might I influence [city policy]? I think how I would influence it is to make sure that we keep our minds open and that we continue to look towards cleaner energy. We have policies in place for that, and to encourage the technology, because I think the technology is going to be what gets us there.
3. Any ideas about negotiating a better energy project for East Bellevue?
As you all know, I was the one “no” vote on that conditional use permit. The reason that I voted no on that was because I thought there was enough in the record that indicated that 148th with its boulevard really deserved protection, and I thought that there was enough in the record that supported protection of that. Had I been in charge back in 2008 when this all came to pass, I would have tried to negotiate to have them go on 156th or 164th, or 140th even. 140th has lines.
But I wasn’t in charge. By the time it got to the conditional-use permit, I felt like we could have rejected it, based on what was in the record. So that’s how I voted. But once that came to pass and all the court decisions were over, it’s a finalized decision. There’s nothing that we can do to negotiate a better solution with regard to the permit with the company. There’s just not, because it’s a final land use decision. When the easements came up to the council, I felt that we should grant them because it’s a final land use decision and we can’t undercut that. It would put us at risk of being sued by the company. But also, by granting the easements we can better control and mitigate some of the impacts of that. So I went ahead and supported granting the easements, because it’s going to happen. It’s a final land use decision. As long as they want to build it, it’s going to happen. So we need to make sure that we can mitigate it to the extent possible.
If it had gone on 164th, then the distribution lines would have gone underground. So it would have been a net zero. But on 148th, I think it’s a net negative. I think it’s going to “uglify” that corridor and I’m disappointed about it. I’ve heard some things through the grapevine of why the staff person who was in charge didn’t want to be bothered because it would be more difficult to go one of the other routes. But PSE would have gone, by what I’ve heard, the other routes, if the city had wanted. So that was a staff decision. It wasn’t a council decision. So once that happened, the die was kind of cast on that.
Anyway, I would have worked with them back in 2008. Back then, maybe we could have planned it with some improvements that the city paid for. It would have been a lot cheaper, back then. But that ship has kind of sailed, sadly.
4. What do you think about having a public energy provider?
I heard a rumor that people were potentially collecting signatures for a referendum. I guess it’s true. So, you know, I’ve never worked with a public utility. My day job is an attorney to represent cities. One of my cities has their own electric company and solid waste company, sewer, water. So I’ve dealt with utilities in that regard, but I have never worked for a public utility district. So my knowledge base on the differences is not great. Public utilities compared to city utilities – public utilities have more regulations on them than city run utilities do. I do know that, because we’ve been very happy that we’ve been able to have more flexibility as a city, for my clients.
On the public utility districts, you know, it’s another taxing district. So the disadvantage would be that, for the consumer, they can be taxed. Can they tax? Maybe I’m wrong…
I guess the difference is that the risk for a public utility district and a private utility, is the risk is on the taxpayer for a public utility district. The risk for a private utility is more on the owners of the private utility. That would be a potential benefit to a ratepayer to have a private utility.
However, the regulations are such that [private utilities] come and collect when they do projects and stuff. They can collect a lot of that back. So ultimately it all comes down to the ratepayers.
Which one is cheaper to administer? I don’t know. A public utility, in theory, doesn’t seek to profit, versus a private does. So in theory, potentially the rates could be lower. But they still need to collect their cost. I just don’t know the law here. If you create a public utility district, they have to buy the private utility’s assets. That would be incredibly expensive. Where is that money going to come from? Do they do it as a tax?
It would seem to me that it would be cost-prohibitive to do a new public utility district in an area like this, but I don’t really know. I’ll be curious to learn more about it, if it does get on the ballot, and I don’t really have a position about it. If the public wants that, then the public can vote for that. I just don’t know enough. I’m so sorry.