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Allegheny gains power in shady way

January 08, 2008|By TIM ROWLAND

I liked Allegheny Energy so much better when it was borderline bankrupt.

Yeah, so maybe they had it coming. They tried to be a big player in the smoke-and-mirror world of energy trading. They wanted to be just like Enron. And they came pretty close.

But even in disgrace, when it's stock was in the toilet and no one knew whether or not the venerable old Potomac Edison would survive, it was still a hapless, lovable underdog you could root for, like the Kansas City Royals or General Motors.

But now Allegheny's back in the green and its stock is up and all it's taken to get there is the corporate morality of C. Montgomery Burns: "Friends. Family. Region. These are the demons you must slay if you wish to succeed in business."

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First comes this mammoth transmission line Allegheny is forcing on the region, and West Virginia in particular. It's supposed to run from up east of Pittsburgh to Loudoun County, Va. But somehow, most of it would go through the Mountain State.

Without it, Allegheny says, the entire region, including West Virginia, could experience brownouts by 2011.

Oh. So, like how do you know if there's a brownout in West Virginia - one of your turkey brooders goes dark? And I'm not sure I see how a tanning bed in Leesburg, Va., can affect the lights in Elkins, but then I'm not an electrical engineer.

Without the line, Allegheny says, "reliable service cannot be guaranteed." What, like it is now? There are a lot of microwaves in the North End flashing 12:00 that would beg to differ.

Call me a paranoid West Virginian at heart, but it's hard to look at a map and see how a straight line between Greensburg, Pa., and Loudoun County would logically include six West Virginia counties - unless they see dubya vee ay as an easier mark.

And is this the same line that's going to run right through Antietam? If it is, this south, then north, then south pattern is pretty impressive - like maybe they're trying to play connect the dots with the national parks.

But I guess if the East Coast needs the juice, it needs the juice, so what are you going to do?

The stranger Allegheny act was the bulk mailing last month of two energy-efficient light bulbs to all its 220,000 residential customers in Maryland.

Post offices were grumbling because the skids of bulbs arrived smack in the middle of the Christmas rush, becoming ensnared with the traditional barrage of gifts.

"Sorry kid, because of postal overload, your Barbie doll didn't get here in time for Christmas. But here, have a light bulb."

And customers weren't tickled with the gift, either. Because as it turns out, it wasn't a gift. Allegheny is charging for the bulbs, adding the cost to utility bills. So this would be like Macy's sending all its customers a pair of goatskin gloves, unsolicited, and putting the charge on your credit card. Not a bad idea if you can get away with it.

And Allegheny can get away with it because the state government approved it. Yes, the Maryland Public Service Commission is basically forcing you to buy something from a for-profit corporation.

That concept makes me a little uneasy; I don't know why.

Maybe because I don't know where it's going to end. They say the light bulbs are good for us and - stop me if you've heard this before - their use is absolutely necessary if we are to avoid rolling blackouts (see? last week it was brownouts - the problem has worsened in the space of three days) by the year 2011.

What has me worried is that I fear my furnace isn't terribly efficient. Does this mean that that coveralled Dave freak from Lennox can show up at my door? "Hi there. Here's your new efficient furnace to prevent blackouts by the year 2011. The state says you could use it. That will be $4,000, please."

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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