Energy choice

As owners of SMUD, we can determine our future

Find out how you can save energy and save money.
Jeff vonKaenel is the president, CEO and majority owner of the News & Review newspapers in Sacramento, Chico and Reno. His column, Greenlight, appears weekly in this space.

We, the residents of Sacramento County, own our utility company. This ownership brings both benefits and responsibilities.

I was reminded of this recently, when talking to SMUD CEO John DiStasio. Unlike a private-sector utility company, where the CEO has to balance the needs of the stockholders against the needs of the community, in Sacramento, we are John’s stockholders. Unlike a private-sector utility company that needs to maintain profits, SMUD is able to promote energy conservation without worrying about the impact to the bottom line.

We have clearly benefited from owning SMUD. Sacramento’s energy rates are dramatically less than those in neighboring areas. Since new energy sources cost more per kilowatt than our current hydroelectric sources, this focus on conservation has helped us maintain low rates. Since using more energy would create more air pollution, this focus on conservation has also helped improve air quality in our region.

But what about the future? I asked John, who has been at SMUD for 29 years, where he saw SMUD in 2040. There are a lot of unknown variables: how many people will be living here; how much energy will be required for new products, such as high-definition television sets; what advances will be made in energy conservation; if more people will drive electric cars; how much energy will be created by decentralized energy sources, like rooftop solar installations.

But given the time and money that it takes to develop new energy sources, SMUD has to make a guess about the future, even with all these unknown variables. And we, the owners of SMUD, are one of the biggest unknowns. How much energy will we use and how much energy will we waste? John DiStasio says that it is currently possible for us to reduce our community’s energy use by 18 to 25 percent, if we do such things as replacing antiquated air-conditioning systems and ducts, planting trees and replacing inefficient light bulbs. But how much are we willing to do?

We, the owners of SMUD, do have a choice. We can commit the money and resources for expensive and potentially polluting new energy sources that will raise our rates. Or we can, as a community, embrace energy-saving programs that will keep our rates low and improve our air quality. I would like to believe that we will choose to do the latter. But it will take a communitywide effort, largely focused on the 350,000 Sacramento homes built before 1979, and the apartment complexes that have not had conservation upgrades because the tenants are paying the energy bill.

We own SMUD. And our actions will determine our future energy bill. We have enjoyed the benefits of owning our own utility company. We can be wasteful slugs with high energy bills, or we can act as responsible owners and chart a course for an energy-efficient future.