April 08, 2020

Threatened by deregulation

The first two or three days of the recent power outage were rather festive. The giddiness was well-conveyed over the propane-driven airwaves. There was, at first blush, something romantic about the sudden disappearance of televison, eating by candlelight, and the warmth of a steadily pulsing woodstove.

By the fourth day, however, folks had had enough, and Mainers began to pour out of the backwaters with pickax and shovel, looking for the Frankenstein monster.

Some of their ire was directed at the utility workers themselves. Unfairly. It was charged that they had prioritized the wealthy and were ignoring folks on dead-end streets. Worse, they were not doing their jobs at all.

A moment’s thought, however, would have revealed that the workers, too, had families without heat and light, and that their duties kept them from home in their children’s hour of need.

That having been settled, it bears noting that without the convenience of electrical power and its spawn, the world quickly becomes very small indeed. Catastrophe is the great leveler, and Mainers young ad old, affluent and impoverished, strong and weak, found themselves living strikingly similar lifestyles: hard by their woodfires, listening to the battery-powered radio, and actually talking to one another without the incessant blare of television in the background.

The generosity, concern, and even heroics of the people of Maine came out in spades. The celebrated WVOM — the “Voice of Maine” — served, through the crisis, as a town ahll for the entire state. From the offers of firewoods, to the free tax rides, to the advice for keeping a child’s pet iguana warm (“Put it under your shirt”), the media were at last conveying a message that everyone could resonate to. The sense taht we were all in this together may be a function of living in Maine, however: If the crisis had occurred in New Jersey it would have been every man for himself.

Capitalism is a productive system, but its temporary supsension can be sweet. When the profit motive is put on hold, the head clears and people can see each other again. Business cannot be viewed as exploitative when it gives its wares away, as the Brewer IGA did with foodstuffs for the hungry woman and her family out on the Airline.

So what is one to make of the Indeck phenomenon? This idled power plant in Jonesboro made itself notorious by its unwillingness to go on line during the very nadir of Down East cold and darkness. Unless, of course, it was granted above-board rates for its kilowatts of juice. And so the sufferings of Mainers in its potential service area were protracted until alternate means of supplying power could be found.

The problem lay in Indeck’s being owned by out-of-state concerns in Illinois and New Jersey (when the mix if foul, Jersey always seems to be lurking somewhere). With the owners living so far removed from the crisis, they of course sensed no “immediacy of need” to act on people’s behalf. In short, for many Mainers electricity was a matter of life and death; from Indeck’s managerial remove, it was a matter of the bottom line. I was not surprised by their bargaining position. What baffled me was Maine’s naive assumption that Indeck would lend a helping hand simply because it was the right thing to do.

Thus, when the peasantry turned out with torches raised and pumping their pitchforks, they should not have been stalking Central Maine Power or Bangor Hydro-Electric. The culprit, alas, is the looming shadow of utility deregulation.

If the mature American takes the long biew of the past 20 or 30 years, a startling realization emerges: One by one our services, once local, have become distant. Where once we called thle phone company, a store, bank or utiolity and spoke with a living, breathing person named Marion or Harry (who lived within walking or driving distance), now we are greeted with a labyrinthe of touch-tone options, made to listen to bad music; or worse, not connected at all.

The most alienating aspect of the new mercantile climate is the inability to speak with the same facless person twice. A call placed to an 800 number may be picked up at any of a scattering of “service centers” throughout the country. We wind up speaking to a semiliterate in Hoboken who doesn’t know us, can’t see us, doesn’t share out experience of living where we do, and must be trained to sound as if our concerns are real to him.

Why, then, do Americans bank beyond the borders of their towns, choose offshore phone companies, and buy from stores which return no revenues to most customers’ communities? The question is foolish, because the answer is commonsensical. The American is hte most affluent sap in the world and yet will drive 50 miles to save a dollar. To save two cents a minute on phone calls he will memorize access codes, keep a file folder for “vacation club” points, and put up with the unresponsiveness of customer service and telephone solicitations during his dinner hour.

In this way Maine will greet utility deregulation with open arms, because it will represent, in the beginning at least, cost savings. The nickel discount is all it takes to seduce the American consumer, who will do handstands on live transmission lines when his wallet is stroked.

Maine’s home-grown-and-owned electric utilites may frustrate us at times, but they are family. It is possible to drive into downtown Bangor and speak with the president of Bangor Hydro. It is even possible to dress him down and threaten to convert to gas refrigeration. But when the Indecks of the world colonize Maine’s market, we will have to accept the hand that’s dealt us, and pray there isn’t another blackout that doesn’t affect Illinois and New Jersey the damned as well.

Robert Klose is an associate professor of biological sciences at University College of Bangor. He writes commentaries for the Christian Science Monitor.

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