Monsters of Deregulation

If were being plundered, where are the festive pirates?

Illustration by Bob AulDuring these electrifying days of power shortages and rolling blackouts, it's a relief to see the windmills working again. It only took me five putts to put a ball through one the other day.

If you've traveled the state much, you know that we do have power-generating windmills—sleek yet gangly things that jut up in acres of neat rows like crazed whirligig farms in our windier regions. Many of those windmills are shuddering to a halt—their owners having gone unpaid for months by the utilities—while miniature golf courses across the state are powering up for the summer. There's our problem in a nutshell. If my electric nutcracker was working, I could explain it to you.

Back in the black-and-white days, electricity was an unfathomable mystery. So it always is with a new technology. In the 1950s, it was the unknown qualities of atomic energy that were credited with medical miracles and giant glowing monsters. In recent years, it's the Internet in which politicians see our economic salvation and William Gibson imagines our new dark side.

But electricity was the daddy of that. It may be the first mythic technology, the one that supplanted gods, magic and nature as the spark plug of our imagination. I mean, Vulcan was the god of the forge, but did he even know what a spark plug was?

Even as power lines were becoming commonplace in early 20th-century America, electricity was regarded as a mysterious force. In penny arcades, you could grip a pair of electrodes to be jolted with "electromagnetic vigor." Hook electrodes up to Boris Karloff and you got a genuine monster. That's how in awe and in doubt of electricity we were. History doesn't note people getting that worked-up about earlier power sources. For example, there were no watermill-powered monsters that I know of.

The Frankenstein monster, of course, was killed in a windmill: the old, comprehended technology winning out over the new, mysterious one, just as flamethrowers subsequently aced-out giant atomic ants in the movies. Which do you find scarier, a giant ant the size of an earthmover or a dog-sized one that can chase you right through your power-outage-darkened house? Me, too—those personal-sized ants scare me almost as much as a two-term Bush presidency.

If I digress here, it's because I don't really know what the bejesus is going on with electricity in this state. Remember Ready Kilowatt, the electric industry's light-bulb-and-lightning-bolt cartoon mascot? In the industry-produced comic books distributed in the classrooms of my youth, Mr. Kilowatt taught a simple, valuable lesson: that electricity is the friend that will kill you if you stick a finger in his socket.

Now, we're finding that unfettered electricity is also a plunderer, a gouger, a manipulator, an extortionist and a cheat. It's the monster that stops windmills.

Who needs windmills when you've got windfalls? A few years ago, the same utilities—Southern California Edison (SCE) and Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E)—that are pleading for a government bailout and rushing for bankruptcy protection were the ones spending tens of millions of dollars to ram deregulation down our throats. A good question then might have been: "If they've got tens of millions to spend on publicity, is being regulated that onerous?"

They got what they wanted, along with a rate increase to offset some economic disadvantage they were supposedly going to suffer as a result of the deregulation they'd lobbied for. I don't pretend to understand this. I'm still trying to figure out how the public built all these dams and then gets to pay utilities for the power they generate.

The utilities did nicely for themselves under deregulation, up until some bigger bastards—the power conglomerates who supply them—raised the rates higher than the utilities could pass on to the consumer. When gougers become the gougees, they get cranky.

One of the problems with an arrogant, crushingly huge industry is that it doesn't have much experience at eliciting sympathy. While they were pleading empty pockets, it was revealed that top PG&E execs had been selling off their stock before the crisis hit, then the company paid out $50 million in bonuses to management the day before it filed for bankruptcy. Edison, meanwhile, had recently funneled billions of now-untouchable dollars to its parent company. As the Weekly's R. Scott Moxley reported in the April 13 issue, Edison has been on a spending spree, buying power plants willy-nilly so that they might spread their managerial genius across the globe.

And they're not even the bad guys here. That black hat is reserved for the power conglomerates, whose profits are up some 600 percent, of which Loretta Lynch, the president of California's Public Utilities Commission, recently said, "Sellers provide unconscionable prices that have no relationship to demand. California is literally being plundered."

Having always imagined that being plundered entailed festive pirates and lots of cannon fire, I have to tell you that being literally plundered is a disappointment.

It bears reiterating here that President Bush forcedairline mechanics to work, denying their right to strike because it's "bad for the economy," while he'd rather California—one of the world's largest economies, even if we didn't vote for the son of a bitch —go dark than ask his friends in the energy cabal to make slightly less obscene profits.

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