You may have seen this when it first came out a while back ... but it's worth
---------------------- Forwarded by Steven J Kean/NA/Enron on 06/13/2001
01:49 PM ---------------------------
From: Ann M Schmidt on 06/13/2001 01:49 PM
To: Steven J Kean/NA/Enron@Enron
Subject: California's dim bulbs
California's dim bulbs
P J O Rourke
Copyright © 2001 Bell & Howell Information and Learning Company. All rights
reserved. Copyright Cato Institute Spring 2001
THE FINAL WORD
CALIFORNIA IS IN THE MIDST OF AN ENORmous stupidity crisis. Californians have
been sitting in the dark because ... they didn't turn the lights on.
They say they're short of electricity. Yes, they are. Between 1988 and 1998,
California's electricity consumption increased by 15 percent. Meanwhile
California's capacity to generate electricity shrank by five percent, even as
the state hesitated to build new power lines to tap into neighboring states'
Californians didn't want dams across their rivers, derricks on their ocean,
power lines across their borders, or fossil fuel smoke in their sky. These
might interfere with all the smart things Californians do, such as
hang-glide. California was going to rely on "negawatts" - dramatic power
conservation. (But California regulators put price controls on electricity
that lowered prices, and even Californians weren't dumb enough to skip a
bargain.) And California was going to rely on alternative power generation.
With all the puffery from Silicon Valley dot.com start-ups, wind farms
wouldn't be a problem. And doesn't Gwyneth Paltrow's star shine bright enough
to operate a solar panel? But it turns out that alternative power generation
is an alternative, mostly, to generating power.
Californians are people who insist on growing their own vegetables, but they
won't dig up the pretty lawn, won't plant anything for fear of getting dirty,
and they use fragrant bath salts from The Body Shop instead of smelly
compost. Let them make their crudites with crab grass. President Bush was
wrong to grant an extension of executive orders requiring out-of-state
utilities to supply power to California. And everyone is wrong to listen to
Californians whine about electricity deregulation.
There never was any deregulation. The California Public Utilities Commission
merely changed its regulations, which apparently weren't stupid enough to
meet Golden State standards. Under California's 1996 re-regulation plan,
electric companies sold their generating plants and became distributors. They
were required to buy their power on the wholesale spot market and forbidden
to enter into any long-term power supply contracts. Retail electricity prices
were lowered by 10 percent and frozen at the new rate until March 2002.
This is like requiring A&P to sell you porterhouse at $2 a pound, no matter
what the price of beef on the hoof. Imagine how many steaks there would be,
and how many supermarkets. Go to one of those boarded-up grocery stores,
purchase a phantom T-bone, screw it into a ceiling fixture, and try to light
your house. You're in California.
Californians devised a system of electricity sales that ignored every
dimension of the free market. (Interesting that the "Information Economy" is
centered in a place that's immune to information.) The free market is a
yardstick, and Californians got smacked with it. Mideast oil jitters, cold
weather, natural gas price spikes, and the plain unpredictable freedom of the
free market caused wholesale electricity costs to rise and California
utilities to go $12 billion into the red.
California's governor Gray Davis responded with the full force of bikini
beach brain. In a January 8 speech to the state legislature, Davis proposed
creating a state agency to buy generating plants and build new ones. He
threatened to expropriate power generators and transmission grids. He called
for laws to allow criminal prosecution of wholesale suppliers who withheld
electricity from California markets. And he said the state's universities and
community colleges would build co-generating plants and become energy
independent. (With gas produced by the cafeteria food?) Gray Davis sounded
like Joseph Stalin with the IQ of Keanu Reeves. "Everyone should understand
that there are other, more drastic measures that I am prepared to take if I
have to," Davis declaimed.
"Take" is the key word. Grabby Californians tried to regulate themselves into
some cheap electricity. Hoggish California power companies went along because
the stateimposed retail price ceiling was also a retail price floor.
According to the Los Angeles Times, during the first 28 months of the scheme,
Pacific Gas and Electric and California Edison made $20 billion from the
legally required mark-up between wholesale and retail electric prices.
Californians want to snatch that money back. "Consumer advocates around
California... said it did not matter that the utilities were returning
investments to their shareholders," reported the January 31 Washington Post.
"They took the money and ran," said state senator John Burton. As opposed to
Californians, who took the electricity and roller-bladed? Now the juice and
the jack are both gone, and the California legislature has had to pass a bill
authorizing $10 billion to try to clean up the mess.
But the Californians could still pull a scam. The bill mandates long-term
power contracts at rates that are way above what future prices should be. The
hope, one guesses, is that Congress, or the President, or somebody will let
the state skip out on those contracts once the costs are lower.
It would be wrong to call Californians stupid. They're sleazy, too.
R J. O'Rourke is the Cato Institute's H. L. Mencken Research Fellow and is
foreign affairs desk chief for Rolling Stone. He is author of several
bestselling books, including Parliament of Whores, Give War a Chance, Age and
Guile, and Eat the Rich.
Copyright , 2000 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved.