Re-reg revolt

A consumer advocacy group is threatening to take electricity deregulation to the ballot if the big utilities don’t clean up their acts.

The Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights is drafting an initiative for the 2002 ballot that would establish a state-run power agency that would end what they call market manipulation and price-gouging by power companies and ensure a cleaner, more reliable energy system.

The four-year-old experiment in deregulation has “laid us bare to the thieves in the energy industry,” said consumer advocate Harvey Rosenfield.

Only a public power system, he says, will ensure that the interest of consumers, not shareholders, will come first. A public power system would go beyond what previously existed before 1996, which was a more heavily regulated group of investor-owned utilities.

While the group has mostly focused on pocket-book issues, it says deregulation has hurt the environment as well.

The argument for deregulation has been that some idealistic capitalists would be there to meet demand for green energy, and that competition would lower prices.

But critics say the emphasis on energy conservation has dropped off dramatically in the last few years, and there’s little incentive for power producers—who are in the business of selling electricity—to promote conservation.

And they say the current system doesn’t allow enough planning and oversight of new energy-generating facilities. Consider the rush of applications to build new gas-powered turbines that came following the electricity-shortage hysteria last summer.

“The truth is that the marketplace is not going to create cleaner energy,” said Doug Heller, a researcher with the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights.

Not all environmental groups agree that a public power system would be good for the environment or for people’s pocketbooks.

“I think having the state government run a power system raises a lot of concerns. My gut reaction is that a proposal like that has little chance of succeeding,” said Sandy Spellicsy with the Planning and Conservation League.