Whatcom County’s economy would look much different if it didn’t have access to inexpensive power – much of it provided by a network of hydroelectric dams in the Northwest.
Residents got a glimpse of what that would be like 17 years ago when power prices were spiking during a shortage of electrical supply across the Western U.S. California was dealing with rolling blackouts, disrupting consumers and businesses throughout much of 2000.
In Whatcom County, the price spike had a dramatic impact on jobs and production. Georgia-Pacific’s Bellingham mill shut down while the two local refineries, Intalco Works and Bellingham Cold Storage were among the industries scrambling to figure out how to stay open.
Bellingham Cold Storage was hit with a daily electric bill that was equal to 23 days of power before the power spike, according to a June 2000 article in The Bellingham Herald. Thousands of residents were left wondering if they still had jobs.
The high energy prices continued to impact the area for the next three years. Intalco, the aluminum smelter near Ferndale, went through a period of temporary shutdowns followed by restarts at a lower capacity. In October 2003 the company had only one of its three potlines in use and laid off hundreds of workers. It wasn’t until 2007 that it restarted its second potline, boosting employment up to 575 people.
Between the shutdown at Georgia-Pacific and the struggles at Intalco, shipping at the Whatcom International Shipping Terminal was all but halted, according to the Port of Bellingham.
In the past 10 years, much of the news around power has centered around negotiations between Intalco and the Bonneville Power Administration, as the smelter continued to adjust to changing global markets.
In 2012, Intalco and BPA agreed to a 10-year power contract. In response to a plunge in the price of aluminum, in November 2015 Alcoa announced it was shutting down the Ferndale facility. Instead of following through on a shutdown, BPA and Intalco were able to agree on an amendment to the contract, ensuring the facility would stay open, keeping about 500 people employed.