Boo! Did I scare you?

We Americans all seem to love a good scare, especially if it is tied to an underlying conspiracy theory.  Aliens visited our ancestors and will return again.  Asteroids will destroy civilization as we know it.  It happened in the past and it is certain to happen again.  Global Warming (sorry they now call it Climate Change because they can’t see any warming to speak of), Global Cooling, Ozone Depletion, Y2K and the list goes on.  Boo!  If you check the dictionary, this form of boo always needs the exclamation mark.

How about this possibility?  Utilities are out to get us!  They are secretly conspiring to convince us that natural gas is now cheap and the supply will last forever … just long enough for us to let them all build natural gas power plants and then gig us with high prices when natural gas returns to its proper Btu parity value!  Boo!

Boo can also be very scary when it is used as a verb to show contempt such as when performing artists are booed off the stage.  This is my fear right now for the electric utility industry.  I fear the day, perhaps very soon, that the seeming partnership utilities have with renewables will turn rather negative.  Politics makes for strange bedfellows, and it has been interesting to me to see the previously antagonistic National Resource Defense Council (NRDC) become an advocate for electric utility ratemaking to preserve the renewables game going forward.

I saw the same thing happen after the energy embargoes of the 1970s.  PURPA was designed to foster cogeneration and utilities were being forced to buy the output in New York State at $0.06 per kWh despite the market value on the grid at the time being $0.03-$0.04.  I watched the utilities that were deregulated just ask for stranded cost recovery and promise to keep rates the same for ten years only to be clobbered by the rate true-ups after that.  The pattern always seems to be the same.  Fear gives way to political positioning rather than being the standard bearer for truth and taking the heat.

Frankly, I am alarmed at the current state of utility affairs in the United States.  It reminds me all too much of the movie The Wizard of Oz.  The electric utility industry is all hunkered down in fear.  They, under the guise of political correctness, are afraid to stand up to their enemies and frankly afraid to enlist the help of their allies as well.

This is truly sad.  The closest analogy I can come up with is how elephants are trained in the zoo.  They begin their lives chained to a stake in the ground and learn quickly that they can’t pull free.  As they get older, they simply assume they still can’t pull the stake out of the ground.  Even as full grown animals, they stay tethered to that stake in the ground until their trainers free them.

Oh please … pull on the stake … it will come out of the ground so easily!  And, no, there is no Boogey Man that will bite you!  Please?!?  Face your fears!!

I loved the movie The Wizard of Oz.  All the characters were scared of something, and they seemed to have legitimate reasons to be scared.  Scarecrow, Tin Man and Lion all had seemingly valid reasons to go to see the Wizard to get what they needed.  Scarecrow needed a brain.  Tin Man needed a heart.  And Lion needed courage.  Give me a break.  You have the diploma, clock and medals.  What you lack is the confidence to pull yourself out of the rut you are in!

Our son played the Wizard in a local drama production and as a result I listened carefully to the lines.  They are actually rather profound and portray the utility affairs rather well.   Because our son was so captivated with drama, I decided for us all to see the Broadway Play Wicked in New York City as part of a trip there a few summers ago.  As you know, it is somewhat of a twist on the Wicked Witch of the West.  It is kind of a back story on The Wizard of Oz.  It was a wonderful event, and will never forget it.

But, one of the songs from Wicked has really stuck with me.  It is the song Wonderful.  Here are some of the lyrics that I think apply here:

Where I come from, we believe all sorts of things that aren’t true. We call it history.
A man’s called a traitor or liberator. A rich man’s a thief or philanthropist. Is one a crusader
or ruthless invader? It’s all in which label is able to persist.  There are precious few at ease
with moral ambiguities, so we act as though they don’t exist.”

I am terribly concerned that the labels that will persist for the electric utilities emerging from these past few decades will be that it was lethargic, heartless, and cowardly.  How’s that?  Did I get your attention with that?

Lethargic because it refused to state the obvious: you can’t assume renewables and energy efficiency will avoid the need for new generation.  Heartless because, at the end of the day, it is a cost recovery business and will be held whole so it didn’t really care as much about the financial damage done to others, especially the less financially able.  There will be financial pain to the industry, but it is not like a free market company and certainly not akin to what fragile financial postures look like in the masses.  It will survive and evolve … kicking and screaming along the way … but it will make it.

Cowardly may seem harsh until you look at what the word means:  lacking the courage to do or endure dangerous or unpleasant things.  Hmmm.  Political correctness is therefore another word for cowardice.  I rest my case.

I am deadly serious.  I am disappointed by the cowardice of the industry right now.  I am alarmed by the heartless disengagement as the utility’s customers are lured into energy systems that will fail to provide the benefits promised and will be abandoned just the same as the boondoggles during the second oil embargo.  I do wonder why the industry has become so lackluster.  It has some of the smartest people on the planet in it.  Maybe it is partly because those who know what is really going on are surrounded by so many new employees who don’t.  Couple that with the popular management style of consensus decision making and you blunt the impact of this wisdom.

Let me remind you all that consensus caused the State of Virginia to legislate that the constant Pi be rounded to 3.0 instead of the irrational number it is.  “There is always a well-known solution to every human problem – neat, plausible, and wrong,” wrote H.L. Mencken in 1917.

Maybe the problem can be summarized by the scene in Star Wars where Luke yodafirst encounters Yoda.  His plane is sunk in the swamp.  I am no Yoda but my prayer for all of you is to watch this brief scene and break that silly chain you think is holding you back.

Do.  Or do not!  There is no try.  And, if you want to know why you are still chained to the ground, watch the next scene right up to the very end:

Boo … (the verb).

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