Sunday, August 07, 2005

The Cost of Utilities

Some recent news stories and opinion pieces in The Oregonian and Portland Tribune have examined the cost of the City’s Big Pipe project (to intercept combined sewer overflows before they discharge to local rivers), and have alluded to the high cost to consumers for sewage collection and treatment. Being a consumer of utility services in Portland, I decided to look at the comparative costs of the several services we use as homeowners.

I compared the cost per day for utilities based on recent bills representing spring use; obviously, some of these costs are higher or lower depending on time of year. I did not include taxes in these numbers, only the costs for the services or products, and associated service or basic fees. We are a two-person family living in urban SE Portland.

Water, sewer and stormwater are billed together by the City of Portland. Our recent bill included: water at 34¢ per day; sewer at 94¢ per day; stormwater at 44¢ per day; and base charge at 20¢ per day for a total of $1.92 per day. I assume that these utilities are not subsidized by taxes I pay to the City of Portland; however, this may not be a valid assumption, in which case the consumer cost might be higher.

Garbage, recycling and yard debris pickup combined cost 63¢ per day.

Electricity cost includes: basic charge of 33¢ day; energy usage at 95¢ per day; transmission charge of 5¢ per day; and distribution charge of 35¢ per day for a total of $1.68 per day.

Finally, natural gas charges include a service charge of 20¢ per day, and gas usage at $1.15 per day for a total of $1.35 per day.

Our payment to the City of Portland is the largest of our utility bills at $1.92 per day. However, the payment to the City is for three different services, so if we parse those out, the result is: electricity is the highest cost, followed by natural gas, sewer, garbage services, stormwater and water. The cost of handling and treating water after we use it (sewage) is almost three times what the consumer pays for the water, and we have repeatedly been told that the sewage costs will continue to increase dramatically in order to pay for the Big Pipe project. I understand the importance of the Big Pipe project, but I would like to see information that assures me that the City has implemented measures to reduce overall costs of sewage collection and treatment through increased efficiencies and value engineering in order to hold consumer costs down to the extent possible.

As consumers, we all assume that as long as we pay our bills, electricity, gas and water will flow when we turn them on, and that our wastes will be taken care of by someone else when we put out the garbage can or flush the toilet. Most of us probably don’t think too much about what these utilities cost, and we certainly don’t consider the true cost of these services and materials in terms of the ecological and social costs of their production, collection, transmission, use and disposal.

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