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Buy the cow, not the milkcan
Jack Balshaw 5/1/01

The Governor and the Legislature have been dithering around trying to decide how to start digging our way out of this electric power crisis.  The Governor wants to buy transmission lines and our State Senator, John Burton, and many others in the legislature want to buy generating plants instead.  Thinking about the alternatives, I came up with the suggestion, Buy the cow, not the milkcan.

 If we had a combination milk shortage and price escalation and someone came up with the idea of buying the dairy’s empty milkcans to help them keep the price down, we’d say it was a foolish suggestion.   Granted without the milkcans or their modern equivalents, the tanker truck, the milk couldn’t get to market. But even given free milkcans, the dairyman could still charge what he wanted for the milk to put in the cans.  If there were to be any hope of ever controlling the price of milk, it would be best for us to own our own cows.

 This electric power crisis is no different.  It isn’t that PG&E or Southern Edison are squeezing us on the cost of transmitting energy, it’s the private companies generating and dealing in energy that have us over a barrel. Even if the state were to own the power lines, we’d still be at the mercy of the private power suppliers for the electricity to transmit through those lines. If the public were to own its own electrical generating plants, the private companies couldn’t charge “what the traffic will bare” for this necessary product.  We must retain public control of our necessary power supplies.

 Like it or not, population is only going to increase. Whether it’s in California or in every state but California, there will be more people needing and demanding power in the future.  There is no alternative to building more power plants to supply this need.  The only real decision is how, when and where to build them.

 We’ve seen that the Northwestern states are trying to keep all their electrical generating capacity from the hydro-electric dams to take care of their own needs.  We can’t count on them now or in the future.  We’ve seen the federal government’s attitude that, “ California got themselves in this bind, let them find their way out of it”.  We can’t count on them now or in the future.  The public in California must control all, or at least a very major share, of the necessary future electrical generation.

 We can talk conservation, like we did during the 70’s oil crisis.  And we did accomplish a lot by increasing auto mileage.  But we’ve seen any savings eroded by the increasing number of cars on the road.  We can and should encourage conservation now, but if we don’t build in new supplies for the future, we will eventually be in the same situation again as California’s or the nation’s population continues to grow.  And it will, all wishful thinking aside.

 The present problem of deciding what to do reminds me of a story I heard about an auto repair facility.  The shop posted a sign that stated, “ Auto repairs - quick, inexpensive, quality work.  Pick any two”.   What we do about future electrical power supplies is very similar.

 We can have reasonably priced electricity, all we need, without any pollution or environmental impact.  Pick any two.

 Picking which two will be the political and economic decision making problem.  It won’t be easy.  Those willing to accept minimally increased supplies to permit environmentally sound power generation of reasonably priced electricity will have to think about how such a decision might effect both their employers and that employer’s customers.

 Those favoring a lot of reasonably priced electricity will have to weigh the environmental challenges that will delay new plants.

 And those who want both adequate supplies of electricity that is generated in an environmentally sensitive manner will have to come up with a way for poorer people to afford such electricity.

 The decision making California must undertake this year will be interesting to watch.


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