Wednesday, January 14, 2009


Old power grids are like old taxicabs

by Larry Geller

Someone remarked to me that we are lucky to have any electricity in a third-world country. That’s kind of discouraging. It’s not that bad. Most of the time it works. Really. But let’s dig into this thought for a moment.

I remember visiting Singapore for the first time in 1971. To get from the old airport to the hotel I needed a taxi. A buzzing crowd surrounded the exit, calling out “taxi mister?” or something like that. Most of the men soliciting passengers did not have legitimate cabs, of course. Anyway, I went to the cab line and got a “real” yellow-and-black Mercedes cab for my ride. It did look a bit beat up, though…

There were no rear passenger windows on either side, and no door handle. I was wondering how I would get out. The upholstery was torn off the seat and the foam rubber covered with a big towel.

It was good enough to get me to the hotel, and as I learned, if you pay, you were given a door handle to get out. Maybe some people didn’t pay. Oh, there was no meter, either, or maybe it “didn’t work,” I don’t remember. Shabby or not, most of the time those cabs did run. They were “good enough.”

New York City went through something similar. Filthy cars. They ran, except sometimes. Anyway, the city cracked down and the hack inspectors pulled many hack licenses. Maintenance improved.

Both Singapore and New York have shiny, clean taxi services today.

So improvements can be made, if we want them. It’s not ok that something mostly runs. That’s not good enough.

At today’s hearing on the power failure, no doubt HECO will explain what happened after Christmas and how they reacted to restore power. Maybe the Public Utilities Commission will say something, or maybe it is too early for their reaction. Legislators will ask questions, maybe like how come lightning over here brings down power over there? I hope they will throw reasonable hardballs.

We, the people, are the customers of utility services. We have a right to the best service our money can buy, period. Now there is talk about smart grids and a big clean energy plan. It’s a lot to read (see earlier post), but note that they expect ratepayers to foot the bill.

I say let’s have an independent analysis. Ratepayers might foot the bill in the end, but we need to know that this is not an exercise in “disaster capitalism” that is designed to enrich HECO shareholders while we modernize their system. What about modernizing our own grid, in the same way the state upgrades bridges and roads? Our own grid. Not any utility’s grid. Let HECO take care of the dinosaur generators.

That’s not completely fair either, but you get what I’m saying. An argument can be made that putting in the new generators, which will have to be written off far into the future, was agreed to by the PUC. Working out a compromise that will get fossile-fuel-sucking generators off-line and replaced with renewable energy will be a challenge.

HECO shareholders are not served by pulling good generators off line, and you don’t really want to pay for that either, do you. We want wind, we want wave, we may want geothermal, but we don’t want to be sucked dry. In fact, these days we have no money for them, we just don’t.

I suggest that we, and our elected representatives, remember that their responsibility is to the people, not to the shareholders of a company, even if that company has contributed much campaign moolah over the years and has even sent executives to work in legislators’ offices side-by-side with them as “interns.” We evicted the corporate lobbyists (“interns”) from the Legislature two or three sessions ago.

Change is in the air for 2009. Now we can think free, think out of the box, think of how we can economically change from an older concept of regulated utilities to something new and different.



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