(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser May 2013)
“Unless you become more watchful in your states and check the spirit of monopoly and thirst for exclusive privileges you will in the end find that the control over your dearest interests has passed into the hands of these corporations.” Andrew Jackson
Yes, I read the unattractive little slips of paper that come with our monthly PG&E bill, and I have no doubt PG&E hopes most customers will toss these little slips without reading their tiny print. Why? Because most of the little slips announce rate increases for things customers should not have to pay for. There is a government entity called the CPUC, which stands for the California Public Utilities Commission, that is supposed to protect the consumer from unnecessary and unjust rate increases, but the CPUC does not protect us because they are in bed with PG&E, literally, and approve anything and everything that PG&E wants to do.
Last month’s bill contained notices of public hearings at which PG&E customers can express their thoughts and feelings about PG&E’s latest proposed rate increases that will garner the private utility company 1.2 billion dollars by raising our electric bills 5.2 percent and our gas bills 15.3 percent. But wait. Because of the nationwide fracking insanity, America is now exporting vast quantities of natural gas to Japan and elsewhere, so PG&E should be lowering gas bills, not raising them, and that same cheap gas is making the generation of electricity cheaper, too, so our electricity rates should be going down, not up. But that won’t stop the CPUC from approving PG&E’s request for rate increases. And what are we going to do about this crime?
Well, I wrote a letter to the CPUC reminding them that they are supposed to be serving the public, not facilitating PG&E’s thievery, and that the rate increases are outrageous and uncalled for. I also sent a copy of my letter to our governor Jerry Brown and asked him to make a fuss about PG&E’s latest proposed theft. No responses so far, and I won’t hold my breath waiting for any. You can write letters, too, or attend public hearings, but that won’t do any good.
Then with this month’s bill came a notice of Phase Two of PG&E’s proposed rate increases, which seems to say they will raise our electric rates even more than the previously noted 5.2 percent—something more like 8 percent. Why? Because they are greedy and amoral and want more and more money all the time and there is nothing we can do to stop them. In many California communities PG&E has a suffocating monopoly on the delivery of electricity, and in the absence of any sort of help from our government, the public is helpless to resist.
“Well, if I called the wrong number, why did you answer the phone?” James Thurber
In related news, my phone line went dead on Friday evening, while Marcia’s phone line remained vibrantly alive. Why me, Lord? In any case, since the blessed line ceased to work on the weekend I had to wait until Monday to report the outage to our friendly local MCN (Mendocino Community Network) through which Marcia and I get our phone and internet service. Within a few hours after my call to MCN, a cordial fellow arrived to check our lines and determine that the problem was not my fault. He said that AT&T, the owner of the telephone lines, would have to fix the problem since it was AT&T’s line that was not hooked up properly.
So a few hours later, a taciturn AT&T guy arrived and I told him which number was dead and which was alive, and he nodded and checked the connections in the box on the side of our house and went away and came back and climbed a pole and went away and came back and spent about two hours doing whatever he was doing. Then he announced there was nothing wrong with Marcia’s line, which we already knew, and that it was my line that was dead.
“Yes,” I said, trying to remain calm. “That is what I told the fellow from MCN, and he confirmed that. And that is what I told you when you arrived.”
“Well,” he said, shrugging, “MCN put in an order for me to check the number I checked, and since you’re not an AT&T client we can’t fix the other line until MCN puts in an order for that other number.”
“But I told you which number was dead and which was live,” I said, doing a little jig of annoyance. “And you acknowledged that information and then spent two hours looking into the situation, so I don’t see why you can’t…”
“Somebody, probably me, will come back tomorrow or the next day,” he said, shrugging. “But since you’re not an AT&T customer, I can’t fix the line until MCN puts in an order for the other number.”
And I thought to myself Herein lies the problem with monopolies and the privatization of essential services, which was followed by the thought I wonder if this some sort of punishment for changing our local service to MCN and not continuing to pay the usurious rates charged by AT&T for that same local service?
The sad truth is that PG&E can triple or quadruple our rates any time they want to, and we would have no choice but to pay them unless we want to live without electricity. Indeed, we recently paid a large initial ransom and continue to pay a monthly penalty for not having a Smart Meter radiating us twenty-four hours a day, and our rates were increased to pay for the Smart Meter program (and our rates did not go down after all the radiation devices were installed.) Remember: PG&E is a private company, not a public utility, and therefore we should not have to finance their infrastructure costs on top of paying our monthly energy bills; but we do.
In the case of telephone service, I doubt that AT&T likes sharing their lines with little locally owned companies that provide excellent service for much less money than AT&T charges for similar service. Sadly, when we dared switch to MCN for our local phone service, AT&T punished us with huge fees for stopping service at our previous residence, transferring service to our new residence, and hooking up with MCN. We had no choice but to pay those entirely arbitrary and exorbitant fees if we wanted to avail ourselves of the much more affordable local and long distance phone service, as well as groovy fast internet, all from MCN.
Alas, we do not have an MCN equivalent to provide us with greener and less expensive electricity than PG&E provides, and that is because PG&E and Southern California Edison spend many millions of our dollars every year influencing legislators and running entirely false ad campaigns to make sure alternatives to their monopolies have little chance of succeeding, and they do so with the collusion of the CPUC and the legislature and our governor. Can you say corporate oligarchy? Or if that is too abstract, how about a king and his vassals plundering the peasants whenever they feel like plundering?
“The use of solar energy has not been opened up because the oil industry does not own the sun.” Ralph Nader
In my most recent yet-to-be-published novel, one of the main characters is the co-founder of a worker-owned cooperative that installs solar panels on the rooftops of a very sunny California town at no cost to the rooftop owners. When we meet our hero, he and his cohorts at Sky Blue Solar Farms have installed state-of-the-art solar panels on nearly all the rooftops of the medium-sized town. The profit split for the sale of the surplus solar electricity back to the grid is 50% for the homeowner, 30% for the township, and 20% for Sky Blue Solar Farms; and the township has grown so rich from the sale of surplus electricity that they now provide the citizenry with fabulous free public transportation, a superb and absolutely free community college, a vast community farm growing superb organic fruits and vegetables and grains, excellent free health clinics, and, of course, a booming economy—all of this made possible by simply changing the laws governing the production and sale of electricity that currently hold sway in California and do not allow such wonderful fictional things to come true.
But such fiction would swiftly become reality if we could change the current laws that serve the greedy few and penalize the rest of us. That, I think, is the most frustrating thing about so many of the obstacles to a transformative technological and societal and ecological revolution: the solutions are readily available but the kings and their vassals are loathe to relinquish their mean-spirited monopolies.