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California and the West | ON CALIFORNIA

Notes In a Bottle

April 15, 2001|PETER H. KING

Time to eliminate the middleman--me--and pass along a couple of e-messages that have bobbed up on my computer screen during the energy crisis. The first, a sage if somewhat depressing overview of deregulation's empty promises, comes from a retired L. A. Department of Water and Power conservation manager:

"Historically," the writer begins, "the electric utility industry was regulated because the large capital costs required to build generation, transmission and distribution systems made it impossible for electric companies to provide service in overlapping geographic areas.

"As a result, the competition which could, in theory, protect consumers from price-gouging was not possible and regulation therefore was necessary. This is still true today despite profiteers' claims to the contrary. The concept that spinning off part of the state's generation capacity to independent companies would foster competition has proved bogus.

"This is because the capital costs of providing new generation without a high probability of profit is daunting. It's far better for independent power producers to hang on to their present generation capacity and let shortages drive up the price.

"Eventually, high prices will result in the construction of new generating stations. . . . Unfortunately, there will always be boom and bust cycles because of the present free-market approach inherent in deregulation. As a result, poor and moderate-income citizens will suffer untold hardships. Such a system is unconscionable in a society where the need for electricity is only slightly less than that for water and air.

"In the past, utilities had a vested interest in staying ahead of demand. They had a greater assurance they would eventually be able to recover their costs. . . .

"The result of the utilities' competition for large commercial and industrial customers engendered by deregulation will cause other difficulties. Utilities are already neglecting the maintenance of the infrastructure that delivers power to their small commercial and residential customers. That neglect will one day result in a distribution system where neighborhood power outages will be the rule. Perhaps with chronic local outages, the need for additional generation will be significantly reduced.

"Deregulation also discourages utility involvement in conservation measures on the customer's side of the meter. Utilities will be far too busy with the mad scramble for revenue and survival to worry about assisting all but their very largest customers.

"In the end, the beneficiaries of deregulation will be the independent generators, the large private utilities (when they get their inevitable rate increases), and the large commercial and industrial users of electric power. The rest of us will enjoy higher rates, more frequent power outages and unnecessary environmental degradation."

For a lighter look through the glass, there's this anonymous e-mail that has been rocketing around computerland, passed along by Californians grown weary of being yapped at from afar:

"To the 49 Other States.

"From California:

"California ranks 48th in the nation in power consumed per person. California grows more than half the nation's fruit, nuts and vegetables. We're keeping them. We need something to eat when the power goes out.

"We grow 99% or more of the nation's almonds, artichokes, dates, figs, kiwi fruit, olives, persimmons, pistachios, prunes, raisins and walnuts. Hope you won't miss them.

"California is the nation's No. 1 dairy state. We're keeping our dairy products. We'll need plenty of fresh ones since our refrigerators can't be relied upon.

"Got milk?

"We Californians are gonna keep all our high-tech software in state. Silicon Valley is ours, after all. Without enough electricity, which you're apparently keeping for yourselves, we just plain don't have enough software to spare.

"Want to see a blockbuster movie this weekend? Come to California. We make them here. Since we'll now have to make them with our own electricity, we're keeping them.

"Want some nice domestic wine? We produce over 17 million gallons per year. We'll need all of it to drown our sorrows when we think about the fact that no matter how many California products we export to make the rest of America's lives better, America can't see its way clear to help us out with a little electricity.

"You all complain that we don't build enough power plants. Well, you don't grow enough food, write enough software, make enough movies, build enough airplanes and defense systems, or make enough wine. This is your last warning, America. Lighten (us) up before it's too late.

"Love, The Californians"

Now, I won't vouch for the logic and command of electricity logistics exhibited in this war cry, but I sure do admire the spirit of the thing. Let them eat armadillos.

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