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Allegheny hearing fails to spark interest

December 21, 2006|by TIM ROWLAND

Memo to Allegheny Energy: If you want people to show up at your public hearing, jack up the price of electricity first and THEN ask for public comment.

Only about 20 customers wandered in last week during a two-hour open house to discuss pending electricity rate hikes, a surprisingly small number when you consider how much rates are likely to escalate in 2008 under deregulation law.

I know you don't live here anymore, but you see, Allegheny, we're kind of an out-of-sight, out-of-mind bunch. And until we actually see the numbers on a bill, the reading on our outragometer isn't going to measure much beyond "mildly concerned."

Or maybe that was the plan. Hold the hearings two years out and, for good measure, make it 10 days before Christmas. What, was the hotel conference room booked on Christmas Eve? Maybe only five people would have showed up then.

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Allegheny said it was looking for feedback on how to lessen the economic blow of higher rates. So what am I supposed to know about economic impacts? Who do I look like, Milton Friedman? Really, if you're trying to find someone to disprove the two-sided bell-curve duopoly with cost differentiation model, I'm probably not the guy.

But it is kind of quaint they wanted our help. And who knows? Maybe the keenest corporate economic minds the company has to offer are stumped, but some motel housekeeper on Locust Street gets it done.

Notice you didn't hear about a lot of state lawmakers showing up at the open house. You know, the ones who back in 1999 said "We are going to deregulate electricity, and to do that we are going to regulate it for the next decade."

Strange, but true. They "deregulated" electricity, then capped the rates so they couldn't go up for a Very Long Time. In that way, it's very much like the death penalty.

"OK felon, I sentence to you to death. Now enjoy your next 30 years while you're on your magical mystery appeal tour."

The caps, as I understand it, which is to say not much, were put in place to give other "competitors" a chance to move in and give consumers a choice of companies from which to buy their electricity.

And I have to admit, I thought about it for a while. I was going to incorporate under the name of Tim's Electrical Grid, build a few generating plants, put up enough windmills to get a tax credit and get on with giving Allegheny a run for its kilowatts.

But the price tag was a disappointment. Even when I scaled back my plan by moving my corporate headquarters from Monte Carlo back to Ringgold, it still weighed in at about $6.2 billion.

Needless to say, a lot of other young entrepreneurs thought the same thing, because in all these years Allegheny still has no competitor. Meanwhile, Allegheny has nearly 10 years of accumulated higher fuel prices, inflation costs and corporate shower curtains that it needs to make up for.

And guess who's going to be doing the making up?

Allegheny is saying it doesn't know how much of a rate hike we're in for, which is true in the sense I don't know how much my rent is going to be next month. I mean, I have a pretty good idea, but technically, I don't know. It could change between now and January. Who really knows?

It seems like, at any given point in time, one form of energy is cheap, while the other forms of energy are sky high. And my home, wherever I happen to be living at the time, is never heated by the cheap stuff.

So as I start designing a new home, I plan to cover all the bases. It will be heated by natural gas. And fuel oil. And electricity, solar power, firewood, sod, corn pellets and Uma Thurman. Then, whatever form of energy is cheapest at any given time, I will use.

If the utilities want to play games, I can play games. And the cost of all these redundant heating systems will be slightly less than the estimated cost of Tim's Electrical Grid, Inc. With what I save on energy it will pay for itself in just 3,459 years.

What can I say? Like the rest of Washington County I tend to be a little short-sighted.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist. He can be reached at 301-733-5131, ext. 2324 or via e-mail at timr@herald-mail.com. You can listen to his podcast, The Rowland Rant, on www.antpod.com.

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