Seattle City Light and King County: Creating a Strong Collaboration Between Public Power and Government Agencies 

By Ethan Kirkham, Public Power Program Manager

Energy is fundamental to so many different parts of the way we go about our lives. It cools us when we’re hot, takes us from point A to point B down a road or rail, provides light in the dark, is used in building our homes and in creating what we keep in them, and maintains the increasingly digital world we live in. That is why the clean energy transition—which fundamentally changes how we source and ultimately use our energy—prompts us to recreate how we function as a society, presenting different challenges to individual people, companies, and governments across geographies and economies. That is also why it is so important that the clean energy transition is collaborative and intentional. 

For Public Power utilities there is an immense potential for collaboration. Public Power utilities have invaluable expertise and a great deal of jurisdictional overlap with all different kinds of public and private entities that rely on the utility’s electric distribution grid. If you have solar panels on your home and a utility with net metering, you yourself have collaborated with your utility on the clean energy transition.

A partnership that is a marquee example of this kind of large-scale collaborative effort is Seattle City Light and King County’s work on public transit. A pair of representatives from the two organizations spoke about this effort at the American Public Power Association’s National Conference earlier this summer. (To hear more about some of the topics discussed at the conference, check out our recap blog from earlier this month). So, why don’t I break it down:

The Project
As we have discussed previously in our case study of Seattle and the Inflation Reduction Act (which can be found here), the premier clean energy transition issue facing Seattle and the rest of western Washington is electrification. This is a result of the existing and abundant supply of clean energy thanks to the region’s many hydropower dams. For Seattle City Light, the Transportation Electrification Strategic Investment Plan (TESIP) passed by the City Council directs them to—among other priorities—partner with the City of Seattle and with King County on electric vehicle charging infrastructure and electrification of public transit. King County is the 8th largest transit agency in the country and has a goal to have 100% electric bus and light duty vehicle fleets by 2035. Deploying electric buses is the top priority in this effort. King County is beginning the fleet transition effort first in low income communities and communities of color as an effort towards their environmental justice goals, bringing health benefits to those communities disproportionately affected by vehicle exhaust. The King County representative praised Seattle City Light for their important role in the planning and implementation of these projects. Here’s why:

What Seattle City Light Brings to the Partnership
There are a number of reasons why it makes sense for the two organizations to work together. Both of them, being government entities, operate in not-for-profit service to largely overlapping populations. Each of their successes are aligned with each other’s goals, including their climate goals. Another reason this partnership is mutually beneficial is that Seattle City Light manages a large portion of the electric grid in King County. A large-scale electrification project like this one will have an impact on the electric grid Seattle City Light operates, and the utility would thus want the project to play out as efficiently and smoothly as possible to minimize risks. 

To these ends, Seattle City Light was able to help King County carry out this project in a few key ways: 

      • Seattle City Light was able to do comprehensive modeling to see how the project would affect the utility’s operations, impact costs on customers, and how it would fit with existing infrastructure. The model produced some key guidance on project design and timeline.
      • In addition to their own Systems Impact Study, the utility was able to tap into external technical assistance, consulting externally with the Electric Power Research Institute on design, testing, and commissioning.
      • The utility also assisted in designing and building charging stations for the buses.

    With the expertise provided by Seattle City Light, King County is able to move forward with a strong plan as they engage with vendors on the electric buses and follow through with the implementation of this very important part of their decarbonization efforts. 

    To round off the presentation, the King County representative gave some of the key lessons learned through the process, including the importance of early engagement with the utility, getting the right team together for strategy, performing comprehensive modeling, and checking in on how the project relates to shared priorities and goals periodically.

    The Key Takeaway for Other Public Power Leaders
    Even as Seattle is a very well resourced area, and entities like their public utility and their county transit agency are well supported, this partnership has been paramount to their success so far. For Public Power utilities that may be in a less advantageous position, seeking partnerships with entities that have shared priorities may be the way to meet energy transition goals. Public Power leaders should consider how other government agencies, Public Power utilities, cooperatives, municipalities, or any other entity may have interests that align with theirs. Partnerships have great potential to expand what is technically and economically possible and they can foster a smarter, more coordinated and efficient clean energy transition.