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One-Sided Utility Hearings Offer Preview of Big Picture Strategy


On Wednesday, the Florida Public Service Commission wrapped up three days of dog and pony show "hearings" that will likely pave the way for utility companies to dramatically cut their energy conservation goals over the next half decade. Given what we know about energy production, future demand and Florida's precarious vulnerability to rising sea levels, this might seem to land somewhere between counterintuitive and insane, which is to say pretty much par for the course in the Sunshine State.

Big Utility is telling us that conservation costs more than it saves. When asked to provide evidence prior to the hearings, they said they didn't really collect that sort of data. When conservation experts provided data that refuted their claims, they offhandedly dismissed it as irrelevant. Just to make sure such inconveniences didn't muddy up the “hearings,” they got the PSC to close the meetings to public comment, because this was way too technical for anyone other than those asking to gut conservation goals to speak on.

In the big picture, it couldn't be more clear that creating the energy which will be required by a continuously growing and evermore energy hungry population will require an all-fronts approach in coming decades. We will need to continue to improve so-called alternatives, responsibly exploit the cheapest and cleanest traditional sources and perhaps most importantly, continue to find ways to conserve usage. The first two we're getting better at, but the third seems to suffer from a very obvious disadvantage – no one gets filthy rich if I use less energy.

For more than half a century, industry practice, consumer behavior, prevailing public opinion and government regulation all leaned toward an energy ethos of find (or take) more on the cheap. There existed plenty of credible evidence that this was irresponsible, irrational and indeed unsustainable, and the world has never been want for experts warning of impending consequences, but none of that seemed to matter much.

As a society, time and again we have ignored the realities and bought the pie in the sky, capitalism can solve anything line that those who were lining their pockets on such fallacies were selling. Say what you want about Jimmy Carter, but two issues where he looks like a real life prophet at this point are Israel/Palestine and clean-energy independence.

Carter realized that transitioning energy landscapes would never be painless, but at the same time, would always be more painful from one day to the next. He had the political courage to say, let's suffer the sacrifice here and now on my watch. Sadly, we have not seen such political courage in the White House by any President since. Carter's efforts to cull a collective consensus that three and a half decades ago was the time to start moving in that direction were of course stymied by the first person willing to pitch the implausible idea that even modest sacrifices were not necessary.

Americans seem better at few things than buying into fantasies. Anytime someone is willing to tell us that we can have our cake and eat it too – even when we know better – it's too much for us to resist. We're like little kids being told, Hey Johnny, what if I were to tell you that tooth decay was just a conspiracy created by the toothpaste industry to sell more product, and that you can eat all the sweets you want and never worry about those pearly whites?

When master pitchman Ronald Reagan essentially told Americans that conservation was for wimps and weenies and all we had to do was drill-drill-drill, we bought it hook, line and sinker. In fact, on Reagan's first day in office he set about having Carter's White House solar panels taken down. Carter's lesson was heeded by every President since and as a result, not even one of the two Democrats who've occupied 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in those years can boast an environmental record that comes close to Richard Nixon's.

Nixon, it should be noted, possessed a nuanced understanding of the environment as an extremely valuable resource and was not so obtuse as to think that it could be separated from the economy as a whole. Like other Republicans of his day, including Barry Goldwater, Nixon saw that if you were a real capitalist, you couldn't ignore such a large presence on the ledger. If you relax regulations only to pay for the ensuing cleanup with public dollars down the line, you didn't make the market more efficient by a long shot.

Nixon and Goldwater both believed as Adam Smith did that capitalism means the producer bearing the full and true cost of bringing a product to market – including cleanup and other less obvious costs such as irreversible environmental destruction. Unfortunately, that sometimes means that an industry's preferred (read: most profitable) method comes at a cost that consumers will find less than palatable and may indeed inspire them to change their consumption behavior and seek out alternatives in the marketplace.

Better for those industries if we can hide the true cost of the product, fool consumers into thinking that they're getting something that is ultimately quite expensive on the cheap, and then foil any potential competing technology by limiting its availability or making it seem more expensive than it actually is by way of subsidy disparities.

Alas, that is where we are with energy utilities today. Many of those experts who were warning us 40 years ago that our current path was wholly unsustainable, also had a collective prediction which has proven spot on. It goes something like this: First they'll tell you that there's no problem and plenty of energy right up to the point when that fallacy becomes absurd, and then they'll tell you that there is a problem after all, but it's so near on the horizon that all of the alternatives they've resisted could never catch up fast enough to be of much help, and so the only solution will be more nuclear – which just so happens to be their most profitable product.

Energy is a big money business and like all big money businesses it exists on a model of continuous growth. Their strategy today is textbook given their circumstances, but that certainly doesn't mean that it follows that such a strategy is in the best interest of the people, our country, our economy, our future or our planet.

With a little political courage, that would be an easy message to communicate, but the PSC has long been a lapdog commission that dogmatically reflects our Republican-dominated legislature's prevailing notions, which unfortunately lean toward Reagan and his successors much more than the likes of Nixon and Goldwater.

Dennis Maley's column appears every Thursday and Sunday in The Bradenton Times. He can be reached at dennis.maley@thebradentontimes.com. Click here to visit his column archive. Click here to go to his bio page. You can also follow Dennis on Facebook.


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