There are probably a few people living off the grid in the backcountry of California, but the other 38 million of us depend on our local utilities for electric power.
That makes us stakeholders in how that energy is produced, distributed and priced – the latter accounting for many, many billions of dollars.
One would think that the nearly universal experience of buying electricity – not to mention its indispensable economic importance – would make politicians reluctant to mess with it.
But one would be wrong. The Capitol’s denizens incessantly tinker with the state’s power system, usually in ways that cost consumers more money. It’s why Californians are already paying power rates that are among the nation’s very highest and headed even higher very soon.
The classic example is what happened in 1996 when both houses of the Legislature voted unanimously for a misnamed, misbegotten monstrosity called “deregulation” without truly considering its downside risks.
Within a few years, one major utility had been driven into bankruptcy, another escaped insolvency by a hair’s breadth, blackouts plagued the state and eventually, utility rates were jacked up to pay for the debacle.
A decade later, the Legislature tinkered once again by decreeing that utilities must acquire much of their juice from “renewable sources” in the name of lowering greenhouse gas emissions. Eventually, it became a hard goal of one-third of the supply by 2020.
The decree forced utilities to make deals mostly with purveyors of wind and solar power at costs substantially above those from conventional sources, such as natural-gas-fired generation plants – costs that are pushing our utility rates even higher.
But wait, as the television pitchman says, there’s more.
Last month, the state Senate approved Senate Bill 1139 by Sen. Ben Hueso, D-San Diego, which would compel utilities, on top of the renewable mandate, to acquire another 500 megawatts of power from geothermal sources, which is even more expensive than wind and solar power.
It’s clearly designed to benefit geothermal producers around the Salton Sea, which is in Hueso’s district, at the expense of consumers throughout the state.
Well, not quite. Just before the Senate vote, Hueso amended the bill to apply only to private utilities, such as San Diego Gas & Electric, Southern California Edison and Pacific Gas & Electric Co., and exempt municipal utilities.
Why? Because Los Angeles politicians ramped up the political heat, threatening to block the bill unless their Department of Water and Power and other municipal utilities were left out of the costly mandate to buy geothermal power.
It’s another example of how politicians fiddle with the power grid and make the rest of us – some of us, anyway – pay for it.
Dan Walters is a columnist for the Sacramento Bee. Reach him as firstname.lastname@example.org.