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Clark Public Utilities commissioner candidates square off

The two candidates have similar views, but one would represent a youth movement on the Clark PUD Commission

CLARK COUNTY — The race to be a Clark Public Utilities District Commissioner doesn’t usually electrify the voters, but this year’s race is something a bit different.

All three candidates in the August primary were highly qualified. Incumbent Jim Malinowski, who is seeking his second six-year term as the District 1 commissioner, is going up against Sherry Erickson, an engineering consultant with a slew of degrees to her credit. Malinowski brings the practical experience along with impressive education credentials. Erickson brings a younger perspective and plenty of advanced engineering know-how.

Those differences were on display at a recent League of Women Voters candidate forum and on CVTV.org as Erickson’s youthful exuberance and excitement went up against Malinowski’s practicality and experience.

Both candidates extol the virtues of energy conservation, and the need to innovate in the market.

Jim Malinowski, incumbent Clark PUD District 1 Commissioner, is shown here at a League of Women Voters candidate forum. Photo by Mike Schultz
Jim Malinowski, incumbent Clark PUD District 1 Commissioner, is shown here at a League of Women Voters candidate forum. Photo by Mike Schultz

“If we can maintain our load growth at zero, meaning we don’t have to go out and purchase resources that are more expensive than what we have,” Malinowski said, referring to some of his priorities as commissioner. Another top focus point would be on customer service. “We’ve gotten the JD Power award for the last 12 years I guess it is, and that’s an indication that we have a customer service culture that’s really important.”

Erickson agreed that keeping PUD customers front and center should be a priority, but said she would like to focus on emerging technologies to make things easier for them.

“Online billing, online capital investments,” she says. “Looking at the capitol investments that are going into the utility and making sure we have the equipment and the training for the workforce that we can have the most effective utility going forward.”

Clark Public Utilities currently spends around $7 million each year to encourage conservation, usually through rebates for more energy efficient light bulbs and appliances. Both candidates said they would like to see that continue, and even increase if possible.

“Conservation also goes down to the smallest level of what kind of light bulbs you have in your house. What kind of refrigerator do you have in your kitchen?” said Erickson. “When you have a chance to replace those items, are there rebates and incentives available to you to even out the price point?”

Malinowski added that improved building efficiency has also helped the county save money on electrical expenses. “The per capita use of energy in the county has gone down sufficiently so that, even though we have significant population growth, we’ve had no load growth.”

The candidates differed somewhat in their views of how emerging technology should play a role for the utility. Erickson said moving away from fossil fuels as an energy source will mean finding the power we need elsewhere.

Sherry Erickson, running for Clark Public Utility Commissioner, District 1 is shown here at a recent League of Women Voters candidate forum. Photo by Mike Schultz
Sherry Erickson, running for Clark Public Utility Commissioner, District 1 is shown here at a recent League of Women Voters candidate forum. Photo by Mike Schultz

“Nuclear is something that’s going to need to come into our energy supply on a national basis,” says Erickson. “Is it the right solution for Clark County? No. We have the benefit of having hydropower. We are so blessed that we can avoid burning fossil fuels by using hydro power, and I’m really grateful that we have that as a regional resource. And we need to keep that resource here, and develop nuclear and other fossil fuel avoiding technologies as much as possible in the future.”

Malinowski says he doesn’t see a future in which wind and solar generation completely replace other methods, because the systems needed to store energy for when it’s dark, cloudy, or not windy enough are too costly and difficult to maintain.

“To the extent that customers can develop both solar and storage on their side of the meter, we should support that,” he says, “but I think we need to focus on our side of the meter, in conservation and using the resources we have, and not be investing in expensive alternative energy.”

Another potential issue facing utilities is Net Power, which is when a customer generates enough of their own electricity on site that they can actually sell some back to the utility. At this point, there aren’t enough people doing that in Clark County to present any issue.

“If we get up to the point where participation is 10 or 20 percent, there’s going to be a substantial cost shift, and that has to be addressed,” says Malinowski, while adding that he supports encouraging as much on site energy generation as possible. “I support customer own generation, but we have to figure out a way to protect the non-participating ratepayers.”

“We are a long way away from overusing this particular system,” says Erickson. “We don’t have a lot of on site generation here in our county, and we’re not to a point where it makes it difficult for the power company to predict the power it needs to buy, so I support it fully.”

On the issue of potentially privatizing Clark Public Utilities, both candidates said they are staunchly in favor of keeping the utility publicly owned.

“Is competition a benefit in the free market?” asked Erickson. “Anybody who’s taken basic economics knows that that’s true. But when it comes to this particular service, I think a public entity serves its community best.”

Malinowski added that he has been involved with both a public and a private utility. “What I realized is that the incentives are different between private power and public power,” he says. “In the private sector the incentives are to benefit the stockholders, and the public is often secondary. With public power, the customers are first.”

Erickson, who is in her 40’s and would be the youngest Clark PUD Commissioner by far if elected, said she feels it’s time for a younger viewpoint there.

“The energy market is changing. It’s becoming more and more volatile,” she said. “So, with that, we need a more and more dynamic and innovative approach to keep our rates stable and low.”

Malinowski said he believes his track record has shown that Clark PUD needs stable leadership that aims to put its customers first, while continuing to innovate and seek sustainable energy solutions. He said the commission already has standards in place to provide the lowest rates possible.

“Those policies are intended to ensure that we continue to provide reliable service, and low and stable rates,” he said.

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About The Author

Chris Brown comes to Clark County Today with 15 years of local news experience as a reporter, editor, and anchor at KXL News Radio and KOIN-6 TV in Portland. In 2016, he won an Oregon Association of Broadcaster's award for Best Investigative Reporting for a series on America's Violent Youth. He has also been awarded by the Associated Press for Best Breaking News coverage as editor of Portland's Morning News following the 2015 school shooting at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon. The second oldest of eight home-schooled children, Brown graduated from high school two years early. After several odd jobs, he earned an internship at KXL Radio, eventually working his way into a full-time job. Brown has lived in Clark County his entire life, and is very excited at the opportunity to now focus full-time on the significant stories happening in his own back yard, rather than across “the river.’’ After a few years in Vancouver, he recently moved back to Battle Ground with his wife and two young daughters. When he's not working to report what's happening in Clark County, Brown enjoys spending time with his family, playing music, taking pictures, or working in the yard. He also actually does enjoy long walks on the beach, and sunsets.

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