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.

Meanwhile, the last people to get paid—which has meant not getting paid at all—are the small alternative-energy providers, the windmill and solar producers. They can't afford to keep operating, so the energy conglomerate has even hobbled the baby steps we've been making toward renewable energy.

And what about us, the poor consumers? The world hasn't exactly been rushing to our aid, probably because we in the U.S. already are using one-fourth of the world's energy. Our fellow states have been scarcely more sympathetic, probably because when they think of California, they picture Klieg-lit Hollywood premieres and Disneyland Electrical Parades and the rest of us lolling on the beaches having buff sex while laughing at other states where folks toil in the fields and go to sleep at 9 p.m., hours before we even begin powering up our post-buff sex discotheques.

What are people in Iowa to think when they see droves of Californians buying Sony's Aibo digital dog at $1,500 a pop? What I'm thinking is that dogs turn mean when they don't get fed, and I don't want to be around in the next blackout when thousands of these cyberpooches start experiencing voltaic hunger pangs.

Electric dogs! Who is going to feel sorry for us when we're buying electric dogs? Local municipalities have outlawed clotheslines, citing them as an unsightly nuisance. We're so energy-addicted that we can't even let nature dry our clothes anymore.

Can we blame the energy companies for taking advantage of people who are so useless? Suppose you had an oil company that drilled and pumped oil in remote locales, transported it, refined it, bought off politicians and did so much else, only to see knuckleheads paying more for a pint of bottled water than they do for your product. Wouldn't you start charging more, particularly when said knuckleheads are piling into hulking SUVs? And if you were Ready Kilowatt, you wouldn't want to see Oily Octane having all the fun, would you?

So this is a mess with plenty of blame to go around and not much of a solution in sight. Mandating conservation is fine, except a surcharge for not cutting back on last year's use penalizes the people who already conserve. Some say we should let the utilities go bankrupt and have the state seize them, and I'm all for that—but it'll happen around the same time Ralph Nader moves into the White House.

Some wax idyllic about the times before electric power, thinking we'll all just sit around the bonfire, singing songs and swapping recipes. Fine, except we're not an agrarian society anymore, and the closest thing most Californians have to a farm implement is a pump-action shotgun.

Technology will save us. I'm predicting that soon we'll just genetically engineer Delaware-sized vats of electric-eel DNA fed with unprocessed wastewater, hook a couple of wires up to it and voila! We're back in the Electrical Parade. And, oh, the monsters we'll imagine!

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