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SANDY BANKS / Life as We Live It

Sometimes You Just Want Power, Not Choices

April 03, 1998|SANDY BANKS

In case you missed it, we entered a new era in California this week--the era of free market trade in electrical power.

That's right. . . . Soon we California consumers will be able to choose our electricity providers just like we choose our grocery stores.

(OK, bad example. Since market chains have begun gobbling one another up, our choices have dwindled to precious few.)

We'll be able to choose our electricity provider just like we choose our bank.

(OK, OK, another bad example. Same reason.)

Anyway, the "revolution" in the electric industry will grant us more choices, the experts say. And ultimately, lower prices.

I don't know about you, but absent from the list of things that would improve my life is free market electricity.

What I want in electricity is consistency, not choice. I want to flip a switch and have my lights come on, my coffee start brewing, my computer boot up. And I want it to be like magic.

I don't want to have to give any more thought to where the power comes from, who provides it and how it gets here, than I do to understanding how it makes a light come on.

*

I'm old enough to remember the days before voice mail and call waiting, before Kmart sold telephones, before companies with initials for names competed to handle our long-distance calls.

And I miss those good old days. Then, the telephone company would give you a couple of phones, install them, and fix them when they broke. In exchange, they'd send you a bill each month. You could pay it without even reading it, and I frequently did.

Everybody was taken care of. And if we were missing something . . . well, we didn't know enough to complain.

Now, I'm not a total Luddite. I appreciate the convenience of my cordless phone, and I've come to rely on my answering machine (even though I still haven't figured out how to program it to let me retrieve messages when I'm away from home).

But I'm just not sure deregulation is such a good thing.

They deregulated the pay phones recently. Now calls that used to cost us 20 cents require 35. And you still can't count on a pay phone to work.

And opening up the long-distance market to competition made us easy pickings for fly-by-night frauds. Now there's "cramming" (unauthorized services in your bill) and "slamming" (switching your long-distance company without your knowledge) to worry about, and phantom charges showing up on our telephone bills.

And when we're not studying our phone bills, we should be studying the newspaper ads that tell us which companies will save us more on calls to where at what time of the day or night. You weigh the money this company will give you to switch against the fee the other charges to let you go. Between Friends & Family, Calling Circles and Dial10-321, I'm more confused than I've ever been.

Being bombarded by choices puts me on overload. So I opt out, then have to live with a kind of constant angst over the notion that I'm missing something, that I chose unwisely, that I'm throwing away my hard-earned cash.

And soon I'll have to fight those doubts each time I flick a switch to light up a room.

*

The experts assure us that the changeover to free market electricity will be painless and that the power will keep flowing, with no interruptions, whether we exercise our choice to switch or not.

So far, there's been more interest among companies that want to provide electricity than among the consumers who need to buy it.

Almost 300 new companies have signed up to compete for our electricity dollars. The state's Public Utilities Commission, which regulates utilities, has promised to tighten its scrutiny of the process after one of those companies was found to be little more than a pyramid scheme run by a 19-year-old.

"There's kind of been a joke going around that 25 cents and two box tops get you in," one PUC official told The Times last month.

So far, response has been tepid among consumers. Fewer than 40,000 of the state's nearly 10 million eligible electric customers have decided to switch, and most are big businesses, with the most to gain from a reduction in rates.

The rest of us, it seems, are still considering whether we want to forsake Southern California Edison for say, Cleen'n green, Friendly Power or Christian Energy Electrical.

In the meantime, there are a host of services out there to help us decide, including a $73-million, consumer-financed public education program and a Web site "loaded with deregulation information."

Eventually, experts say, the expanding market mentality will lead to technological improvements, like meters that let us know how much energy we're using at any one time, as well as "smart" home appliances that operate automatically when energy is cheap.

And, soon, utilities will be required to tell us specifically where our electricity dollar goes.

Forgive me, but that's really more than I care to know. I've got enough to think about without adding electricity. I just want to know that when I need it, it's there.

*

* Sandy Banks' column is published Mondays and Fridays. Her e-mail address is sandy.banks@latimes.com.

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