Welcome to power deregulation world

My check to the power company each month is made payable to Pacific Graft and Extortion, and yes, it is cashed by Pacific Gas and Electric.

It is my monthly, benign protest, partly registering my disapproval of how the utility continues to raise its rates and partly against the system that lets PG&E operate as it does. The bill includes charges for therms and kilowatts, surcharges and rebates. Never have understood what the latter two are all about, other than they represent the system that has given California the power crisis it finds itself in with seemingly no way out other than a lifetime of more rate increases.

California is a peculiarity to much of the rest of America. It is the land of that gave the world Mickey Mouse, bell-bottoms (yep, they're back), skateboards, Roy Rogers and Meg Ryan, among other things. It also bequeathed power deregulation upon everyone else.

California was the first to deregulate its electricity market in 1996, ostensibly to lower utility rates. That has become the biggest joke of the last century. Deregulation has left Californians bewildered and angry and the rest of the nation saying "we'll take bell bottoms, but no thanks to deregulation."

California may well be the first - and last state to deregulate electricity. There are two dozen other states considering various forms of it, but you can bet after the California debacle, brakes are being applied with both feet.

After seeing one megawatt of power increase in price this winter from $30 to as much as $1,400 quicker than you can say "Surf's Up!" deregulation will likely become the newest four-letter word.

About 24 million of California's 32 million people are served by a pair of publicly owned utilities, PG&E and Southern California Edison.

SoCal Edison and PG&E are crying bankruptcy and rolling blackouts, pleading to the state Public Utilities Commission to raise rates. They got a small one, 9 percent for homeowners to 15 percent for large industrial customers. However, the two companies will only get that after the PUC have audited their books.

"Criminal price-gouging, pillage, extortion, highway robbery" are some of the more gracious terms bantered about as the state tries to find a way out of the energy mess.

And, people may be justified in those opinions. In the PUC hearing on the rate hike increase, the agency acknowledged that utilities have been making money hand over fist during the rate freeze that when into effect with deregulation. PG&E claims it is out of money with no ability to raise more short term cash to pay for electricity it has bought, yet PG&E transferred $9.6 billion to its parent company during the rate freeze, virtually eliminating all cash reserves. Now they want Californians to refill the coffers.

There are no simple solutions to the California energy crisis.

- Buy back the power plants the utilities were forced to sell when deregulation was enacted. With what? Taxpayer's money?

- Freeze rates and tell PG&E and SoCal Edison to get out of their own jam. Watch the lights go out in LA, San Francisco, Fresno and Redding. Regulators and politicians don't control the utilities. The utilities control their destiny.

- Sell state bonds to cover the $9 billion spent on electricity so far this winter and let taxpayers pay for it. What happens this summer when they run up another $9 billion bill? Issue more bonds?

Welcome to the world of deregulation, and may we all enjoy writing increasingly bigger utility bill checks for the rest of our lives.

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