Hope Dims for Electricity Reform

Power makers
Rarely care,
If their work
Pollutes our air.

Everyone knows by now that coal is evil and we should stop generating electricity with it. We know about oil, too. We wisely don’t want to drill for it in our own precious soil or waters because of environmental hazards. On the other hand, we don’t want to import oil either, since that makes us depend on other nations where we invariably become complicit in corruption, violence, and empire-building. Ethanol just wastes good farm land.

Natural gas sounds better: not so much CO2. And we’ve got plenty. But it’s expensive, and drilling for it pollutes nearby groundwater like crazy. But if we buy it abroad–see above about oil.

Popular once more, after decades of disgrace, is nuclear. It’s horribly expensive and potentially fatal, but it has powerful friends. President Barack Obama and some members of Congress seem willing to throw barrels of money at it to give it another shot. Just not in their backyards.

Also not acceptable in many backyards are windmills. By the sea or in the mountains (where the wind is) they’re perceived as ugly. Keep ‘em out! Luckily farmers in the Wind Belt love them, but how do you get the Plains States’ juice to power-thirsty cities? That would take endless miles of transmission towers. Again, not in my backyard, plus no one’s eager to pay for interstate wires. Not sexy enough. Risky investment, too.

Solar is also great…in southern California.

So basically change is slow, slow, slow. Coal, oil, gas, and nukes have mounted a powerful defense against altering the status quo, and local utility companies daily build more legislative walls guarding their potent existing cartels. Public utility regulators remain cozy with those utilities, and the regional agencies in charge of seeing that there’s enough juice to go around remain deeply secretive and deep in the industry’s pocket.

And you expect progress? Let’s get real. There’s the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which has to approve a few things but lacks power to initiate change. In fact, nobody has the power to initiate change. OK, Vermont can close its antiquated nuke plant, and the EPA or angry citizens can head off some scary coal plants. But except for some progressive West Coast local governments, no one can order what will be built and no one can suck the excess profits out of the corrupt system. With the president backing nukes and Congress backing coal, gas, and oil, reform is glacial.

Bursts of subsidies sometimes spurt forth for wind and solar, but they’re uneven. Many green investors have lost their shirts waiting for support. Others have luckily timed it right and are very happy. Meanwhile, no one is actually in charge.

With local utilities, since no one is in charge of them either, regulators are typically reduced to their Enron-defense mode: Don’t let that happen again. Except, that is, in those dreamy regions where government itself is the owner. Think TVA, think Columbia River dams, think Los Angeles (of all places), think Sacramento, think Cleveland. Indeed, many places are served by government utilities and about 24 percent of U.S. electricity is produced by them. Of course, you may have heard that government can be corrupt, wasteful and inefficient too, just like the cartels.

At this rate, the new energy world order will take a very long time to come about.

OtherWords columnist William A. Collins is a former state representative and a former mayor of Norwalk, Connecticut.