The Adventures of Wally the Watt
A fable wherein the son of an electricity farmer meets the powers that be of the deregulated power industry—and finds himself at the center of a crisis.
Once upon a time, in the kingdom of California, there was a watt named Wally. Wally was an energetic young lad, a boy who worked hard on his family’s farm. He was schooled in the traditional ways of life and learned his lessons well.
Wally’s family farm grew, processed and delivered electricity—a potent juice prized throughout the land. His was a simple life, and he would amuse himself by hopping and skipping through the fields with his many brothers and sisters, darting around like fireflies on a warm summer’s eve.
But it wasn’t all fun and games on the prosperous farm, for Wally and his siblings had important jobs to do. Under the guidance of their parents—Peegee and Andy—Wally and his siblings planted the seeds of electrons, made sure they grew safe and strong, harvested the crop and processed it into electricity.
Wally’s family farm holdings were called PG&E Farms, a name his parents cleverly derived from blending their two first names. They were one of the three largest electricity farming families in California, along with the Edisons of Southern California and Stan Diego’s family in the far south.
All three agricultural empires were vast and powerful, but growing electricity was an expensive process, so each family’s operation was also supported by thousands of investors, who bought stock in the family farm. After the crop was harvested and taken to market, the shareholders reaped a share of the profits.
Taking the crop to market was Wally’s favorite part of his farm duties. He knew how much people loved and needed their high-powered juice, so each delivery filled him with pride. Electricity brought such light and warmth into people’s lives that they considered it as essential as air or water.
With a bright smile on his face and a tune on his lips, Wally traveled the lines through California’s verdant fields and sparkling cities, delivering his family’s powerful juice to factories, schools and homes.
After many years of traveling the same lines, Wally came to know the routes well. He knew when he needed to work up a head of steam to carry a difficult section, and when he could take it easy. During the summers, Wally delivered extra juice to cool California’s Central Valley, where it was hot and dry. Winters always brought extra trips to the beautiful Pacific Northwest to protect against the cold air.
Wally’s work was steady and predictable: Plant the seeds, harvest the crop, process the juice and take it to market. That was the routine he knew from as far back as he could remember. Wally came to know his customers well, and they knew Wally as a reliable, hard-working young fellow.
Now, Wally’s family was always well-paid for its crops … very well paid. In fact, that’s where the trouble began. The price that customers in California paid for the electricity crop was set by Lord PUC, a powerful commissioner who worked with a panel of advisers.
Wally’s family was wealthy and well-established in California, so they were held in high esteem by Lord PUC, who always made sure the PG&E Farms and its investors could depend on a handsome profit.
Not all of Wally’s customers were happy with the arrangement. People like Irene Industry, Bobby Small Business, Carl Corporation and even Joe Ratepayer complained that the subjects of other kingdoms paid just two pieces of gold for the same juice that cost Californians three gold pieces.
“Why, it’s just not fair!” rose the cry across the land. “We must do something!”
Carl and Irene went so far as to threaten to grow their own electricity, and they were two of Wally’s family’s biggest customers. If they stopped buying Wally’s juice, then the farm just wouldn’t be prosperous.
Wally’s family and other farmers knew they had to act and hired old members of the king’s court to protect their businesses. Their savvy consultants roamed the palace hallways and met with their rulers, including Lord PUC and members of the Parliament.
The hired influence-peddlers pointed out to the rulers that electricity farming was more expensive in California because their enlightened subjects had demanded that farmers be kind to their environment and capitalize on sun, wind and water power. There was also a period when the families were encouraged to try nuclear-powered farming, which proved to be expensive. So the price of electrical juice had to go up.
But once the tide of revolt began among the rabble, it was hard to stop. Hearing the cries of the disgruntled citizens, Lord PUC even joined in the chorus, “We must appease our subjects.” And the kingdom’s powerful leaders took note—and opened their pockets to campaign contributions from farmers across the country who wanted to grow electricity in California, including Irene and Carl.
After their pockets were full and the arguments were argued, California’s leaders decided the best way to bring down prices was to free the electricity market from Lord PUC’s control, divide up PG&E Farms among many different farmers and let them compete with each other. Their vying for market share would set the price of juice.
Peegee and Andy weren’t so sure they wanted to sell their beloved farms, but Lord PUC promised they would be showered with more gold than they had ever seen, far more than their farms were worth, if they would sell most of their vast holdings. You see, Lord PUC promised to force Wally’s customers to pay for all the bad investments PG&E Farms had made on their behalf over the years, such as their nuclear-powered farm in Diablo Canyon.
Eventually, Wally’s parents started to like the idea of selling the farm and slowing down a little. So they sold all but a small part of their property and stashed away their newfound fortune. After that, the only job for Wally and his family was to deliver the crop to a newfangled “free” market, a crop that was now produced mostly by out-of-kingdom farmers.
And that’s when Wally’s life changed, and in such a way that he could never have imagined.
Wally was still doing his favorite part of the job, delivering the dynamic commodity to market. But he now worked for many different farmers, none of whom he knew and who had odd family names like Duke, Reliant and Dynegy.
Wally had always known his customers, but now he was told to travel unfamiliar lines and deliver the charged juice to customers he had never met. Often, he had to travel great distances, delivering the crop to other kingdoms even as Californians went hungry.
“It’s a new world, kid,” Wally was told by one of his new bosses. “Yesterday may have been all about keeping the juice flowing throughout the kingdom. But tomorrow … tomorrow is about making mounds of money. It’ll be great, kid, you’ll see.”
Four years later …
Dec. 12, 2000
BEEP, BEEP, BEEP, BEEP!
In a smoke-filled barroom, Wally and his co-workers automatically check their pagers. Unlike the old days, Wally was now always on call, expected to zip out at a moment’s notice when one of the farmers makes a big electricity sale.
“Damn, it’s mine,” says Wally. “Gotta fly, boys.”
Wally hit the bathroom on the way out, just to splash some water on his face and try to get his head together. He’d been hanging out here with his electron buddies for two days now, killing time, just waiting for the call that would send him flying out the door to … where was he headed? In days of yore, he would be en route to Washington in December, but these days, he hadn’t a clue as to where he’d jet off to next.
“Jesus H. Christ,” Wally mumbled to himself. “Arizona—such a dull, dry place.”
Here he was, charged with delivering California-grown electricity to the people in other kingdoms, at a time when his people were facing rationing and paying more than ever for the stuff. Instead, he was delivering a load to customers in the kingdom of friggin’ Arizona.
“Oh, well,” Wally sighed, “a job’s a job.”
He used to get more upset about the injustice of it all, and how his new job made him feel like a traitor to the suffering people of his own kingdom. But these days, there aren’t a whole lot of other lines of work for a young charge with enormous energy bills of his own to pay.
Besides, Wally was in demand like never before, as a growing population in the western kingdoms competed to buy up crops from farms that hadn’t acquired any new fields for more than 10 years. And in the new system, customers in Arizona had as much right to buy the precious juice as Californians, as long as they met the farmers’ high price. In the old days, California customers got served first, but not any more.
Yet these days, Wally had little time to ponder such things, especially given his ever beeping beeper. So Wally hopped onto the grid, took the line down to the old farm in Morro Bay that his parents used to own, but which was now run by Duke Energy. The Dukes were located on the other side of the continent and had bought up a lot of the old electrical fields in the kingdom. Coming in over the ridge and dropping down into the gorgeous estuary of Morro Bay, Wally felt a little nostalgic.
His parents first started farming here back in the ’50s, long before he was born. Wally now darted among the circuits, breathing in the clean, salty sea air and remembering more carefree days. Even the circuits on which he danced were soon to change, as Duke planned to upgrade the processing plants with efficient new ones.
Shaking off his reverie, Wally got back into work mode. He said hello to the farm foreman, picked up his load and hopped onto the Arizona-bound line. Wally was just pulling into Phoenix when …
BEEP BEEP BEEP!
“What the hell?” Wally mumbled to himself. “Why is my beeper going off now? I haven’t even delivered the load yet.”
He couldn’t believe it when he saw “California” flashing on the pager. He rubbed his eyes and looked around before reading the beeper again. Sure enough, his tired eyes did not deceive him. He figured his beeper had shorted out, as he had never been sent back and forth in one day without dropping the load.
Wally called technical support to let them know his beeper was on the fritz. The tech guy told him that there was nothing wrong with the pager and that he and his load of juice had better head back to California ASAP. Wally thought he’d better check in with the farmer back in Morro Bay.
When Mr. Duke found out Wally was still in Phoenix, he flipped. Wally was baffled and innocently asked what was up. His boss yelled, “$1,400, that is what is up,” adding Wally better high-tail it back or he would never work in this business again.
Wally nearly shorted out: $1,400 per megawatt! He’d never seen a crop go for that much! Why, just last May, that same crop was selling for just $47. Unbelievable! Maybe going to Arizona with the electricity reduced the supply in California and made the market grow fonder. To Wally it seemed so pointless and wasteful.
As he reversed course and headed back to his home kingdom, Wally pondered the situation. Why would they order a crop shipment to Arizona if they didn’t intend to even use it? And why would that same shipment suddenly be worth an astounding $1,400 back in California? Wally had seen a lot of strange stuff since the so-called free market was unleashed and driven by supply and demand. But this had to be the strangest. He decided to seek the counsel of his father the next time they saw each other.
Dec. 13, 2000
Wally was looking forward to working on home turf in California for a while, but as he was shaving the next morning, his cell phone rang. Wally’s stomach tightened. He answered and heard it was Big Bob’s voice, one of the farmers he often worked for, and he was screaming incoherently, something about “pinko bureaucrats.” Wally wondered how Big Bob could complain given the price of the charged juice climbed steadily to heights never before attained. He suspected the unprecedented fluctuation of the market had pushed the man over the edge.
“Mr. Bob, sir, please slow down,” Wally pleaded.
“Slow down!” Bob thundered. “For Christ’s sake, we are on the brink of war!”
Wally held the phone out from his ear and heard him ranting and raving about those “commie feds” and other “muckity mucks,” who not only temporarily slashed the price of the electrical crop down to $250 per megawatt, but would soon order all western energy farmers to sell into California.
“That piss-ant price would not even come close to covering the cost of producing the juice,” he wailed. And as if that weren’t bad enough, the old-time farmers like Peegee and Andy, who now bought and resold Big Bob’s power-packed juice, claimed they could no longer afford to buy it.
Big Bob, cursing some more, said it wasn’t his fault those “friggin’ former farmers” weren’t smart enough to cover their costs. Wally wasn’t sure what he was talking about, but then remembered hearing one of his delivery buddies mention that the consumers’ rates were frozen by Lord PUC and the other rulers, under the assumption that the retail price of the juice would fall under the new system.
And the king, known to all as The Gray One, knew that if he let the price his subjects paid for juice rise as steeply as the electricity farmers had raised their prices, then there would be an open revolt in the kingdom, and The Gray One might even be deposed as king.
Big Bob accused those “illustrious,” California-born farmers of being nothing more than old dogs who couldn’t learn new tricks. “They just couldn’t compete so they had to plead for the King’s protection,” he snarled. Wally tried to object, given it was his family that Mr. Bob was now calling “old dogs,” but just as he was about to confront his irate client, Bob told him to take the next few days off.
“Wow, an unscheduled break,” thought Wally, who was used to having only scheduled vacations when there was a crop rotation or other maintenance times at the farms. “And I could really use some time off.”
Wally woke up the next day bright and early as usual and was just about to jump into a business suit when he realized he had the day off. So he threw on some jeans, made a big breakfast and read the sports section of the newspaper. After that, he decided to head down to the local coffee house.
When Wally entered he couldn’t believe his eyes—it was packed to the gills with fellow delivery guys and gals, and many of his brothers and sisters. “Hey gang,” Wally shouted. “What are all of you doing here?”
“We all got some time off. Isn’t it great,” said Willie the Watt, his arm around Wilma. “None of us are too sure how people are going to get their juice, but in this new system, we just do what we’re told, right. They say take it easy, so here we are.”
Wally sipped a latté and shot the breeze all day with the gang and later that evening went outside for a stroll. Less than a block away he ran into Hillary Hydro from Seattle. The region was hit with an Arctic blast and there had been almost no rain in December, seriously impacting hydro—a huge source of cheap power for the region.
“Hey Hillary, what are you doing in our neck of the woods?” Wally asked.
Hillary told Wally that she got last minute orders from the powers-that-be to deliver their state-grown juice to California, pronto. “It is just so unfair. It is bitterly cold in Washington and we have to send our precious, limited juice to all of you in the Golden State so you can keep as many lights on in your house as you like. And all of you workers are sitting around coffee houses.” And then she started to cry.
Wally tried to think of something reassuring to say, but he was at a loss, so he just handed her his handkerchief. She blew her nose and added, “And if that wasn’t bad enough, all this intensive electricity farming is drying up our lakes behind the dams and turning our poor, endangered salmon into paté.”
After a final, theatrical sniffle, Hillary composed herself. She said she was in a mega hurry to get back home, adding she hoped things wouldn’t be so dim the next time they met.
Wally felt terrible. He walked slowly back to a bar, found an empty barstool and ordered a martini, extra dry. While nursing his drink in silence he started thinking about his parents. He promised himself he’d pay them that long-overdue visit.
While lost in his thoughts, Wally heard the voice of The Gray One. He realized it was coming from the television overhead and looked up. The Gray One seemed to be holding some kind of news conference. Wally listened as He railed against electricity farmers for charging too much for their crop, and for withholding thousands of desperately needed megawatts of juice from the kingdom.
“We are in an incredibly bizarre situation that shows how the market can be gamed and manipulated,” His Grayness proclaimed.
Wally looked around the packed bar and also thought about his trip to Arizona and back. Things had changed since the farm was sold and the more he tried to make sense of it, the more confused he became. So, he resolved to talk to his parents and get some answers.
Dec. 14, 2000
Since selling off their farm holdings, Peegee and Andy Watt spent most of their time holed up in their large house in San Francisco. They weren’t as busy as they once were. They still ran some farms, but mostly they just watched over their children, making sure the crops got to market safe and sound.
When Wally arrived at his folk’s house he walked inside. “Mom, Dad,” he called, “anyone home?” There was silence and then he heard some stirring upstairs, so he bound up the staircase. Just as he reached the top of the stairs, his dad shuffled out of the bedroom in his pajamas.
Oh no, Wally thought, not this again. As much as Wally loved his parents, there was one thing he couldn’t stand about them. They were incurable hypochondriacs. When his mom had the sniffles, she was sure it was pneumonia; when his dad had a headache, he was convinced he had a brain tumor. A lifetime of experience had taught Wally that their perceived ailments coincided with their incessant financial worries.
When Peegee and Andy saw Wally, they squeezed him tight, holding on for an uncomfortably long time.
“Son,” Wally’s dad said in a somber tone, “sit down. There’s something your mother and I need to discuss with you. Something important.”
A feeling of dread swept over Wally. He had a good idea of what was coming next. The drama.
“Wally, you know your mother and I have been plagued with health and financial worries all our lives,” Andy said. “We have put up a brave fight, but things have taken a dramatic turn for the worse and we don’t know if we will make it past the new year.”
Wally tried not to roll his eyes or snicker.
His father looked at Wally more intensely and said, “Son, things have never, ever been this bad, and to make matters worse, we can’t even pay our bills to the farmers. Here we sell our farms to those damned foreign growers, and they turn around and charge us more for the juice than our customers will even pay. We’re stuck in the middle. We’re broke, Wally, dead broke! Worse than broke, we’re thinking about filing for bankruptcy because we can’t pay our debts.”
“Wh-, wha-, what do you mean?” Wally stammered in disbelief. “What about this house? What about all your fine jewelry, Mother, and the Cadillac in the garage, Dad? And your investors, can’t they help you? What about all of your retirement money, have you spent all of that, too?”
“Oh no, son, we’re just talking about the checking account. Income from the farms and other investments go straight into the retirement account, so don’t you worry. The whole family shall be well taken care of in our old age,” Andy said. “But there isn’t enough in the checking account to cover our escalating debts to the farmers, not unless Lord PUC lets us charge a lot more for the juice, and I mean mega more.”
Wally then remembered his trip to Arizona and back, and the extra time off that he had recently, and asked his dad to explain what was going on.
“Well, do you remember how Lord PUC used to make sure we didn’t charge anybody too much for our crop?” Andy asked.
“Well, people assumed that with lots of farmers competing with each other, that would naturally lower prices. But they forgot about how much people need electricity, and about how they’ll pay whatever they have to get it. Well, the farmers know this as sure as the sun rises, that if they just hold onto the crop until people are good and hungry, they can charge whatever they want,” Andy said. “And these farmers don’t have to obey the old rules.”
“Well, why doesn’t The Gray One just order the farmers to sell at reasonable prices?” asked a wide-eyed Wally.
A sad kind of look came over the faces of Andy and Peegee. They used to be so close to The Gray One, who would always answer their calls on the first ring. But these days, when Andy calls him, the phone just rings and rings.
Finally, Andy said, “I guess he’s not all-powerful after all.”
Wally wasn’t satisfied with his dad’s answer, but he knew there wasn’t much more he could say. So Wally returned to his job, but vowed to visit his parents, who got sicker and sicker and sicker.
Jan. 17, 2001
During the next visit, Wally saw his parents jump as the phone rang. They looked worried. After a few rings, Andy cautiously picked up the receiver and said hello. Wally could hear the shouting on the other end of the line, “Pay up now or we will cut you off!” echoed a voice that Wally thought sounded like Mr. Reliant, one of the new electricity farmers.
Suddenly, Andy dropped the phone, and both Peegee and Andy started staggering around the room, moaning and groaning. While clutching their chest with a hand, they cried out in unison, “It’s all over! We are finished!”
The scene continued for several more minutes, as a stunned Wally watched Peegee and Andy flail about the room, staggering to and fro. Even though the scene seemed surreal, Wally was genuinely worried about his parents and so he called 9-1-1.
Ten minutes later, just as the paramedics burst in through the front door, Peegee and Andy did one final sweep of their arms, pleaded with Wally to take care of his brothers and sisters, and collapsed. Wally jumped in the back of the ambulance and held on tight as it sped down unlit streets through dark neighborhoods that were victims of the dreaded “rolling blackouts.” When he saw lights in the distance, he knew they were close to the hospital.
Later that night, while seated by the hospital beds where his parents were on life support systems, Wally’s vigil was interrupted by a nurse who said that he had a call. He picked up the phone and heard the exalted voice of The Gray One. So now he calls, Wally thought, after all this.
“Wally, I was so terribly sorry to hear about Peegee and Andy,” The Gray One said. “I never thought this problem I inherited would come to this. I had the misfortune of believing Our Great Emperor in Washington would resolve this crisis, but he refused to get involved in inter-kingdom affairs. But don’t worry, I’ve got good news.”
“What is it, sir?”
“We’re going to deal with the farmers on your behalf. Me, the Lord PUC, all of us here in the capital. We are going to buy and help deliver the juice for you. What do you say to that?”
“Um, uh, that, er, uh, sounds just great, sir.” After a long pause, Wally asked if he could ask a question. The Gray One replied, “Please, feel free.” Wally asked him about what could be done about his mom and dad’s mountain of debt. The Gray One said nothing but goodbye.
Wally was as confused as ever. He wondered what price the Gray One would pay for the crop and how long he would continue to buy the juice. What would happen to the experimental market that Wally adjusted to, and who would deliver the juice? Wally also worried about having a new boss.
Wally’s head started spinning but stopped when he heard his parents troubled breathing. He wasn’t sure if Peegee and Andy could hear him, but decided to tell them The Gray One had called to say everything was going to work out.
First Peegee and then Andy stirred in their beds and then they muttered something. Wally listened closer and heard his dad ask in a weak voice, “Will Joe Ratepayer and Bob Small Business bail us out again?”
Wally wasn’t sure how to respond, as he didn’t want to disturb his parents but also because he didn’t know the answer to that question. He was just so unsure of so much these days but one thing he did know was that saddling Joe and Bob with his parent’s huge debt would alleviate his parents sufferings and have the greedy farmers laughing all the way to the bank. But it was terribly unfair. He feared it could even lead to a rebellion.
Wally kissed his parents and told them to sleep. He tiptoed out of the room and into the blackened street. As he headed home, Wally started feeling sure his parents would recover and that the lights in the kingdom would come back on soon. At least he had hope.