Investor Owned Utilities Bad for Your Health

In my last column I noted that prominent Southern California physicians and solar energy companies have teamed up to fight Assemblyman Steve Bradford and powerful utility interests seeking to kill net metering—and cripple the solar market. This is a major step for the renewable energy movement, as an upstart industry challenges entrenched interests by saying what many have been afraid to say in the past: Investor owned utilities are bad for your health.

For more than 100 years, investor owned utilities have dominated the energy market like a virtual monopoly, with only a few stalwart municipal utilities refusing to submit—saving residents boatloads of money. (The city of Santa Clara’s Silicon Valley Power is a local example.) The big energy companies have had help from a powerful lobbying engine in Sacramento and entire departments devoted to what’s known as “Government Relations.”

Recently, as rooftop solar has become more trendy—and more affordable for low- and moderate-income households—the IOU’s and Big Oil companies have tried the “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” approach by investing in renewable energy research and development. You’ve probably seen the ads by Chevron with an “average person” and a lab engineer singing the praises of that company’s efforts to protect our environment from the dangers of coal, crude and auto emissions.

The dirty little secret that’s left out of the ads is that these investments amount to nothing more than pocket change in the context of billions of dollars in profits Big Energy companies rake in cash on the backs of “average people.” But the “average person” sports are great stories they can tell to legislators and regulators to maintain the myth that they care about our environment, our health and the future of our civilization. Combine that with large donations to candidate committees and (thus far unsuccessful) attempts to curtail municipal utilities at the ballot box, and suddenly, the pro-Big Energy rhetoric you hear from otherwise conscientious and progressive elected leaders starts to make sense.

This is why groups like CAUSE are so important in the battle over the future of energy in California. Until solar and other renewable energy providers make a serious and concerted investment in pushing back on talking points from Southern California Edison and other IOUs, the status quo will continue, and our children will pay the ultimate price—their health.

What do I mean by that? The American Lung Association recently released its “State of the Air 2013” report, which found several California cities to be among the worst offenders in the nation when it comes to clean air. The fact that most of these cities are in the Central Valley should not distract Bay Area residents from the importance of reversing this trend. The Central Valley is responsible for an overwhelming majority of our state’s agriculture. Dirty air leads to dirty water, which leads to tainted food, and that affects us all—not to mention everyone in America and abroad who consumes California-based produce or meat.

Additionally, as we begin to feel the heat of summer’s approach, Californians will be consuming more energy, and the reluctance of big energy to evolve toward a more sustainable system could result in the worst energy crisis since the Gray Davis administration. (Remember Enron?) Bloomberg News recently published a piece that digs deeper into this growing dilemma. I highly recommend a read.

As this battle takes shape in the weeks and months ahead, I’ll be checking back in with updates. But I also want to hear what readers have to say on the subject, so please don’t hesitate to leave comments below. I promise to read them all, and I may even respond.

Peter Allen is an independent communications consultant and a proud native of San Jose.


  1. —Combine that with large donations to candidate committees and (thus far unsuccessful) attempts to curtail municipal utilities at the ballot box, and suddenly, the pro-Big Energy rhetoric you hear from otherwise conscientious and progressive elected leaders starts to make sense.—

    “… otherwise conscientious and progressive elected leaders…”???

    Thank you, Mr. Allen, for helping me understand how to think like a consultant. For any political candidates looking for a spin doctor, consider this my résumé.

    Outside of being a criminal and having a degenerate personality, George Shirakawa Jr. was a conscientious and progressive elected leader.
    Other than when he has something to hide, Chuck Reed is a committed proponent of transparent government.
    Except when he’s cashing his disability check each month, Pete Constant is opposed to defined benefit pension programs.
    When able to break away from her obsession with all things Vietnamese, Madison Nguyen is an unbiased servant of people of all races.
    Despite her efforts to help a criminal keep his Board of Supervisor’s seat, Cindy Chavez believes honesty and accountability are must-haves for anyone sitting on the board.
    Not counting the hours he spent leashed and on all fours in the city manager’s office, former police chief Chris Moore was a fiercely independent leader.
    If you don’t include news that contradicts its political platform, the San Jose Mercury is determined to keep the public informed.
    When not caught in the headlights, Nora Campos consistently evidences a measurable degree of brain activity.
    Besides standing mute to the horrific environmental damage caused by illegal aliens and the homeless, the Sierra Club is an aggressive and vocal defender of the environment.

    How’d I do?

  2. Great post finfan. Really like the Pete Constant stuff, he is a traitor of the worst kind. Takes when it’s his turn and tries to block the rest of us.

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