Washington regulators scrutinize Avista sale in Olympia hearings this week

May 21, 2018 GMT

Avista’s proposed sale to a Canadian utility gets another round of regulatory scrutiny this week.

The Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission will hold “evidentiary hearings” on Tuesday and possibly Wednesday in Olympia to review how Avista would operate as a wholly-owned subsidiary of Hydro One Ltd., of Toronto.

Members of the public can listen via livestream by going to https://www.tvw.org and clicking on the appropriate links, said Kate Griffith, a UTC spokeswoman. The meeting begins at 9:30 a.m. Tuesday.

Interest in the sale of Spokane’s homegrown utility is running high. About 80 Avista customers attended a public hearing last month in Spokane Valley on the proposed $5.3 billion sale. Some voiced concern about foreign ownership of Avista, which was founded in 1889 as Washington Water Power, generating electricity from falls on the Spokane River.

Avista and Hydro One spelled out operating conditions in a proposed settlement, with input from other parties. Some highlights include:

Avista would retain its Spokane headquarters, with similar employment levels and increased charitable giving.

Washington customers would get $31.7 million in credits on their bills for five years. For a typical electric and natural gas customer, the credits would be about $1.27 per month.

The agreement also contains “ring fencing” provisions, designed to keep Avista’s finances as separate as possible from Hydro One’s. The provisions protect Avista ratepayers in the event that Hydro One would file for bankruptcy in the future or run into other financial problems.

The evidentiary hearings give the UTC’s three members the chance to ask questions of Avista, Hydro One and other stakeholders who helped craft the settlement. The three-member commission will evaluate whether Avista’s ratepayers would benefit from the sale.

By mid-August, the UTC will decide whether to approve the sale, which could close later this year. Public utility commissions in other states where Avista operates also are scrutinizing the sale.

There have related developments elsewhere.

Mayo Schmidt, Hydro One’s chief executive, has been the subject of recent articles in the Canadian news media. The province of Ontario owns a 47 percent stake in the utility, and Schmidt’s executive compensation of $6.2 million Canadian last year, along with Hydro One’s high electrical rates, has become fodder in an upcoming provincial election.

Avista and Hydro One also upped their contribution to $4.5 million to the community of Colstrip, Montana, where Avista is part-owner of a coal-fired plant. The money would be used to help Colstrip’s economy transition to other business ventures.

In Idaho, more than 200 Avista customers have sent in written comments on the sale. The state’s Public Utilities Commission will hold three public hearings at 6 p.m. on these dates:

June 12 in Moscow at the 1912 Center, 412 E. Third St.

June 13 at Sandpoint High School, 410 S. Division Ave.

June 14 in Coeur d’Alene at the Midtown Meeting Center, 1505 N. Fifth St.