A lifelong resident of the Pacific Northwest, Scott Simms grew up in Snoqualmie, Washington. After graduating from Washington State University, he handled energy-related accounts and initiatives at public affairs firms. He then spent six years as chief spokesman at Portland General Electric—Oregon’s largest investor-owned utility.
In 2006, Scott joined the Bonneville Power Administration, most recently serving as manager of long-term power planning and then director of communications. He was hired as executive director of the Public Power Council in June 2019.
Scott’s backcountry horseback trail rides with his parents and their friends in the 1970s and ’80s left a lasting impression.
“I remember at a really young age seeing those giant BPA transmission towers and asking the adults where those lines went,” Scott says. “Our family also participated in cattle roundups next to the Columbia River. I am as amazed today as I was then at just how large and powerful this river is. Looking back on those memories, it’s impressive to me to think how much the adults around me knew about the Northwest’s grid and the hydro-dominated power system we have, as well as the inherent value these assets provide to everyone in this region.”
Scott says he learned early in his 20-year energy career the need to get results for the time he spent, and still carries that mindset. “What can we get done that’s meaningful for our members with the annual investment they make in our operating budget?” he asks.
Why should end users of electricity from consumer-owned utilities care about the work of the Public Power Council?
Serving as an economic engine of the Northwest, BPA and its rates affect pocketbooks of residents and the vitality of businesses and job creation in the region. PPC works to keep BPA’s rates as low as possible while ensuring we preserve the value of the reliable federal power system that supplies electricity to Northwest public power communities. PPC initiatives range from holding BPA accountable for its costs of programs and expenses and helping it be more efficient to protecting BPA from outside threats, such as occasional efforts to break up the agency and sell it off piecemeal.
Capitalizing on opportunities to market surplus Northwest power elsewhere in the West is an important evolving issue for public power customers. PPC is working to ensure attributes of the federal system—such as being fast-ramping, carbon-free and available 24/7—are properly valued in electricity markets. If successful, these efforts have the potential to lower BPA’s rates.
The bottom line is PPC helps Northwest consumer-owned utilities and their communities be properly represented and protected regarding all aspects of their reliance on the federal power system.
What insights do you bring to your job from your background?
As a consultant charging clients by the billable hour I learned it’s not enough to try. You have to deliver results. This continues to be my career compass. I see the budget for our operations from our members’ annual dues as their investment to get results.
I understand from my work at PGE and BPA the difficult job our consumer-owned utility members have. PPC is a small, highly technical organization of analysts, policy specialists, legal and communications experts that work in unison with our members to build strategies and advance initiatives on behalf of Northwest public power tied to the costs of the BPA power system and grid.
What is a top issue that affects the supply and price of power?
A big variable is the cost of federal fish and wildlife mitigation costs largely borne by public power customers. PPC and its members have a strong interest in the effectiveness and cost of programs funded through rates BPA charges its customers. This includes support for science-based, cost-effective programs that help BPA meet its obligations for fish and wildlife mitigation.
Fish and wildlife costs are roughly 25% of the total BPA bill to customers, including operations costs and reduced operational flexibility from increased spill at the dams.
Even with success in other areas of BPA cost management, ever-escalating fish and wildlife costs could threaten near- and long-term economic sustainability. PPC is taking targeted steps to properly align cost responsibility for fish programs and recognize the region’s shared stake in the financial health of BPA.
As fish and wildlife costs rise, and courts consider ordering dams to be removed, how do power generation interests best advocate for a more balanced, science-based approach?
I would like to have honest dialogue around the holistic view of our river system and salmon health through the “All-H” approach to management: habitat, hatcheries, hydro and harvest. We used to be better at talking about these factors together as part of the salmon life cycle, but now it feels more disparate. If we can get all of the facts and science-based actions and results on the table, we can move toward more productive conversations based on those facts.
Time and again, public power steps up and pays for its share of mitigation. Public power alone should not be responsible for financing all of the new demands.
What BPA proceedings should consumers be monitoring?
Recently, BPA and its federal partners concluded a public comment process on a draft Environmental Impact Statement on how the Columbia River Basin should be managed. It was heartening to see citizens and businesses from all corners of the Northwest provide comments at webinars and in writing. Members of public power shared concerns about impacts to power production, local economies, river navigation, irrigation, environmental impacts and other factors.
It is crucial for customers who have first rights to BPA power to respond to calls for comment. When the dust settles, we are the ones who have to live with the consequences to our communities.
More and more, we are seeing single-issue special interest groups from across the country—even the globe—helicopter in with their opinions and then move on. No one knows our communities better than we do, and the tradeoffs and balancing we strive for as public power communities. It’s important for public power and its communities to stand up and be heard.
Tell us how the Hydropower Flows Here program came about while you were director of communications at BPA.
We heard loud and clear from Northwest public power that BPA should invest in showcasing the benefits of hydropower. I challenged my team to go beyond convention, and they delivered. The images and tools used are consumer-focused—photos of people and places in the Northwest, not the usual images of dams and transmission lines. We looked at consumer product marketing and thought, “That cola company doesn’t show the making of soda, it shows the end result of people enjoying the soda. We need to do that.”
The campaign has the potential to educate people—especially those new to the Northwest who arrive with a preconceived notion or lack of correct information—about the tremendous value of our hydro-dominated system and the great quality of life it supports.
To learn about the program, visit www.bpa.gov/hydroflowshere.
What most occupies your thoughts day in and day out?
I am constantly mindful of the cost pressures our member utilities are under, and that they feel those cost pressures directly from the citizens and businesses they serve.
Being from a small Northwest town myself, I feel a sense of duty and purpose to do what I can to seek balance and fairness for the people of this region who are served by public power. I think constantly about people struggling to make ends meet, the sacrifices they make and how there are a lot of decisions and policies dreamed up and decided without their direct involvement.
It’s hard for a consumer-owned utility to have a strong voice in some of these matters on their own, but a united public power can move mountains. I am grateful for the PPC member utilities, via their communities, who have invested in PPC since our inception in 1966 to advocate on their behalf in both cost oversight of BPA and preservation of the value it provides to the Northwest.
COVID-19 and the Region’s Energy Use
The Public Power Council surveyed its members to find out how the pandemic impacts their operations and communities, and how PPC could seek relief on their behalf. Results show average energy use has dropped 3% to 10%. Although residential consumption has varied, with more folks working from home, commercial and industrial users—from restaurants to manufactured goods—show reduced consumption due to less demand for certain products or social-distancing policies that keep customers away. Some sectors, including certain food processors, have increased demand due to changes in consumer behavior, such as more meals consumed at home.
Armed with that information, PPC formally asked the Bonneville Power Administration to temporarily pause the agency’s Financial Reserves Policy surcharge. The $30 million a year line item in BPA’s rates helps the agency build up its “bank account” to weather financial ups and downs.
“While our members support the policy overall, now is a time for community relief,” Scott Simms says. “We are hopeful to get this for our members so they can pass it on to their customers. This is a direct example of the work PPC does in partnership with public power utilities.”