MISSION: Southwest Research and Information Center is a multi-cultural organization working to promote the health of people and communities, protect natural resources, ensure citizen participation, and secure environmental and social justice now and for future generations


Who Will Control Our Energy Future?

by Don Hancock, Charles Bensinger, et al.

For the first time in 60 years, the electric utility industry, one of the most vital U.S. economic sectors, is undergoing fundamental change. The change has so far gone largely unnoticed by most people even though it will affect virtually every home and business within the next few years. At issue is not just what company or companies will provide electric service, for decades a monopoly of a private or government company, and at what cost, and with what role for government regulation. Also at issue is whether the country will deliberately move away from the centrally generated, long-distance high voltage transmission system that has provided virtually universal and reliable electricity, but at substantial financial and environmental costs, and which has prevented significant development of decentralized generation and solar energy-based electric systems.

The change goes by various names—"deregulation," "competition," "reinventing utilities." Change is also being driven by various factors—the all-too-familiar goal of the rich to get richer by having more control over electricity, by those whose ideology is to promote competition rather than government regulation, and by those who point to the marked failure of the current system to provide low-priced, environmentally friendly electricity.

Unfortunately, there is no well-organized citizen activism closely involved in the ongoing restructuring, occurring in hundreds of places. The federal 1935 Public Utility Holding Company Act has long provided the basic structure for utility companies, but the framework is being changed, including by the 1992 National Energy Policy Act which mandated that monopoly control over wholesale transmission lines end. Other changes are being debated in Congress. Most state governments are enacting or considering laws to end monopoly control over generation or transmission, or to radically change state regulation of utilities. (Last year New Mexico voters changed the state constitution to create an elected commission for electric utilities.) Scores of electric utility companies and municipal governments (including those of the largest cities in New Mexico) are considering how to stimulate competition and lower electric rates. Dozens of utility and non-utility companies are considering mergers to gain control over larger regions and over greater shares of generation or transmission markets.

The economic stakes are enormous—more than $200 billion in annual electric revenues and hundreds of billions of dollars in present and future electricity generation, transmission, and distribution assets—aside from how those billions will stimulate or stifle much other investment. And the consequences will directly affect people's daily lives, beyond their pocketbooks.

The changes underway will not only affect governments and businesses; the changes also offer opportunities to develop alternatives to the fossil fuel- and nuclear- based electricity systems that have predominated during this century. Citizens can band together not only to influence political decisions, but also to develop new local-scale electric systems, including businesses and cooperatives that can bring more local control over electricity (central to nearly everyone's daily life), while promoting more environmentally compatible energy sources.

We hope to encourage greater understanding of what's happening nationally and in New Mexico as a basis for more effective action by individuals and groups to take advantage of and shape the changes. It will make a difference!

In this issue, a chapter excerpt from Daniel Berman and John O'Connor's recent book, "Who Owns the Sun? People, Politics, and the Struggle for a Solar Economy" (Chelsea Green Publishers) explores the central question of who will have control over our energy production and management as we move through deregulation, away (inevitably) from the burning of fossil fuels, and toward renewable energy sources and alternative methods of generation.

In the Southwest, those unaware of the political and economic pressures brought to bear on energy generation wonder why—of all places in the continental U.S.—there isn't more "alternative" energy produced here, most obviously by capitalizing on sun and wind. Three perspectives from New Mexican residents illuminate the question: the first from Charles Bensinger, a renewable energy advocate and consultant, who examines the reasons the reason's for New Mexico's egregious lack of solar and wind-generated energy.

Karlis Viceps, a Taos, New Mexico, passive-solar homebuilder, takes note of the obstacles—most of them quite unnecessary—facing those who want to build houses that are energy-efficient, utility independent, and fossil-fuel free. Finally, a bright spot, as Amy Bunting of Santa Fe tells how an "ordinary" homeowner can, indeed, live "off the grid" — quite normally and quite respectably, even in the eyes of state regulators—and love it,—Ed.

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