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UTILITY SEEKS PROJECT WITHOUT BAGGAGE; Pacific Borthwest re-think

America's 12th largest publicly-owned utility, which two months ago axed its proposal to buy electricity from a wind plant, is already re-considering renewables. Snohomish Public Utility District (PUD) in the Pacific Northwest, which includes the northern part of Seattle, in February overturned its 1995 decision to buy 10 MW (average) of power from a wind plant in the Columbia Hills proposed by Kenetech. At issue were the price of the power and duration of the contract considering the availability of cheap natural gas in the region.

But just over a fortnight after that decision, local utility officials asked their staff to explore spending as much as $2.75 million yearly -- or about a dollar a month per customer -- on renewables or green energy. Staff are expected to report back to the utility's board this month, says the PUD's Al Aldridge.

There is strong support from the PUD's 230,000 customers, he says. As part of a monthly survey of customers, the PUD asked customers in late March about the importance of renewables and green pricing. Nearly two-thirds of those sampled strongly agreed that investing in renewables -- such as wind power -- is important for the district because they have less environmental impact. Sixty-six percent of respondents also said they would be willing to invest at least a dollar monthly to add renewables to the PUD's current mix. And more than a quarter of residential customers said they would be willing to pay two dollars monthly for renewables. "There is major support for a small investment at the customer level," says Aldridge. "We just want to be sure the support is wide enough." Observers note too that the PUD, based in Everett, wants to meet its goals to develop environmentally benign projects but is wary of current market uncertainties.

It seems the door has yet to be closed to wind, though. Pacific Northwest attorney Nancy Holbrook, who is watching the situation closely, says PUD officials have told her they might proceed with a "clean" wind project if it comes without much baggage. "But they will absolutely not deal with Kenetech [because of the financial uncertainty]," she says flatly. She adds that the PUD might go for another utility acting as a go-between and selling them power from a Kenetech plant. "They appear to be waiting for a good project," she concludes.

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