Published on Friday, February 16, 2001 in the Madison Capital Times
Dont Let Investor Greed Turn Off Lights
by Dave Zweifel
|The energy crisis in California
demonstrates just how far weve let the interests of the rich and
powerful subvert the well-being of the people.
At one time in America, the production and distribution of electric power were closely guarded by government regulatory agencies to make sure that the people got adequate electricity at a fair price.
In return, utilities were granted monopolies and while the people were guaranteed economical electric power, the utilities were guaranteed a fair rate of return on their money.
And in many parts of the country -- Wisconsin was a prime example -- local governments decided that rather than granting these monopoly rights to a private company, they would run the power company themselves. There still are more than 70 municipally owned electric power companies in the state, all doing well and all providing relatively low-cost power to their local customers.
Stoughton and Sun Prairie are but two examples right here in Dane County. Their municipally owned utilities obtain the power, distribute it, and maintain the system with local employees. The mayor and city council serve as the management. If there is money left over at the end of the year, it goes into the city coffers rather than being shipped away to serve some distant stockholders.
It took the government, after all, to get power to most of America. The old U.S. Rural Electrification Agency provided the money and technology to electrify the small towns and farms throughout the states. Private utilities wouldnt do it because the cost of serving remote and less populated areas might eat into their profits.
Until recently, this system of guaranteed monopolies and municipal utilities served the people well. Everyone seemed to have adequate power and at costs that were affordable.
But oh, how things have changed.
Somehow along the way, our utilities and our governments decided that it was more important to satisfy the perennial appetites of Wall Street than it was to serve the customers.
Wed have deregulation, just like the airlines and the phone company. We were told that all the competition would work to our advantage, a pledge that never made any sense to me. How, after all, can you reduce electric rates to customers and earn more money for your stockholders at the same time?
Nevertheless, gullible state governments and a shamelessly hands-off federal government began messing with the countrys power system. They willy-nilly gave up government control (campaign contributions from the right people didnt hurt). No longer could they tell a utility to build a new plant or extend service to a new locale. No longer could they demand that the utility employ sufficient maintenance people, nor could they tell a power company not to build a plant that was deemed unnecessary. Some utilities branched out into new fields, taking their eye off the primary business.
In California, the people and the power companies are now at the mercy of an unregulated cabal of power generators. The utilities insist they will go bankrupt unless prices to the people are increased by about three times. Other states arent faring as badly, but the jury is still out on how well their new privatized, stock-market driven systems will work in the future. Any bets on how the average consuming family will fare?
We allowed a perfectly good and fair system to be kidnapped right from under our noses.
The only good news is that theres still time to save the system in Wisconsin.
Copyright 2001 The Capital Times