Rocky Mountain Power officials confirm that their company has been in negotiations with the National Security Agency about how best to fill the agency's energy needs at a massive computer center it plans to build at the Camp Williams military reservation.
The NSA has been looking for a place to build the center since it maxed out the power grid in Baltimore. State officials say a promise of reliable power was key to the agency's choice of Utah for a new data center, which might need upward of 65 megawatts -- roughly the equivalent electrical load of every home in Salt Lake City.
But some are worried that promises made to secure the $2 billion construction project and hundreds of high-tech defense jobs will come at the expense of current power consumers.
Rocky Mountain spokeswoman Margaret Oler said the company had a "planning process" in place to deal with high-demand customers. But she repeatedly declined to assure the company's current customers that they would not be adversely affected by their new energy-hungry neighbor.
Oler noted, however, that although the proposed NSA facility's power needs were vast, those needs were but a fraction of a percent of what the utility reliably provides to Utah and several adjoining states it serves.
"We are a company that is equipped to do the planning, to bring that service to them and still be able to serve our existing customers," she said.
Oler said the process "usually takes
At standard rates, the agency could pay tens of millions of dollars each year for its power, but Oler said that the NSA was likely quoted a power rate that "is not the same as the industrial rate" published on the utility's Web site. She declined to discuss the rates offered to the NSA.
Former Utah Committee of Consumer Services director Roger Ball said that it's likely that the NSA is negotiating for a so-called "special contract rate." And given the rules the govern the utility's relationship to regulators, it might not have to disclose the arrangement, he said.
And that troubles Ball, who said the special rates are generally much lower than what is paid by other consumers. In at least one case -- for U.S. Magnesium -- the rate is 2 cents per kilowatt hour, he said. That's about 80 percent less than what the utilities' residential customers pay.
The rate set for the NSA, Ball said, "should be sufficient to ensure that nobody else is paying one dime more than they would otherwise have done for their electricity supply."
He also wants to make sure that Rocky Mountain's current customers don't get stuck with the bill for building infrastructure to deliver power to the relatively undeveloped area of Camp Williams where the facility will be built.
Ball stressed that he wasn't opposed to the NSA coming to Utah. "We would all do well to recognize the importance of the NSA to the United States these days, and indeed to the Western world," he said.
But that doesn't mean that consumers should turn a blind eye to rate increases resulting from a new energy-hungry government agency if it gets a sweetheart deal from the power company, he continued.
Ball said ratepayers should demand to know how the electricity supplier intends to provide power to the NSA's Camp Williams site -- and at what rate.
Ted Boyer, who leads the agency that oversees the state's utility monopolies, agreed, saying that he believed the rate the NSA pays will be available to the public.
But Boyer said he was confident in the utility's ability to bring power to the NSA facility without affecting other rate-payers.
"I suspect it won't be an issue or a problem," he said, calling the 65-megawatt figure "negligible" against the overall load provided by the utility.
Boyer said that although Rocky Mountain Power is frequently seeking rate increases as it purchases more power plants and lays more infrastructure in this still fast-growing state, he didn't believe the addition of the NSA center alone would contribute to a rate increase.
He said the state Public Service Commission was unlikely to get involved, "unless there were problems."