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Stopped Clocks

The third of the principles I’m running is “Look before you leap.” Cautious, considered decisions. It’s on this point the Public Service Commission has once again failed us.

When it comes to decision making, it would seem the PSC is eager to do whatever utility companies would like, especially their largest donors. This is obviously not a sensible approach to coming to decisions that are favorable to Georgians. But it doesn’t necessarily mean they always make the wrong decisions. As the saying goes: even a stopped clock is right twice a day. Unless it’s the clock on my wall, which would only be right once a day were its battery to run out.



The event that inspired me to talk on this matter is a proposed merger of two energy companies, SCANA and Dominion. Georgia’s PSC was eager to be the first to approve the merger. While even a politician would dare to say something so bold as “I think it’s important that citizens understand, ratepayers understand, the deal,” our noble guardians of the public would rather simply approve and move on.

We would be right to be immediately suspicious of the PSC’s interaction with SCANA in particular. SCANA spends more on lobbying the PSC than anyone else. And it’s not just Georgia. And in turn SCANA is the only company who bothers to bid on the status of a “regulated provider” of natural gas that’s worth between $10,000,000 and $20,000,000 each year (at the PSC’s whim). Could it be that the other natural gas companies know they wouldn’t be approved anyhow? Well, don’t worry about that, because…

“I don't think there is a correlation at all,” between donations and the vote, said SCANA spokeswoman Simone McKinney.

source

Well there you go, then. We don’t have to worry about SCANA influencing the PSC, because their spokesperson said so. Re-tune your sarcasm detector if you missed it there.

This approach to decisions – just do whatever your patrons tell you – often leads to bad choices being made on behalf of all Georgians. But what about the decision itself? Should our commission have blocked the merger? Actually, no I don’t really think so. And that’s why I bring up the metaphor of the stopped clock.

This isn’t to say the merger is a good thing overall. If we are to ever have a real market in power, it would be preferable to have conditions for a healthy market. In particular it would be better to have more participants in the market. Instead, after this merger, the resulting company would have sole control over a large share of the market, by their own admission: 6.5 million people.

But as much as I’d rather the merger not happen, blocking it for the sake of blocking it is not an appropriate use of government. I’m not aware of anything criminal involving this deal. The deal does have some direct invovlement with South Carolinians, but they have their own commission so that doesn’t justify a heavy hand from Georgia. While both companies have used state power to turn the tables – turning customers they serve into ratepayers who serve them – there’s no reason to believe that would be any worse after the merger. Maybe SCANA wants to get away from fiscal trouble arising from a failed nuclear plant in South Carolina and their fresh, new junk credit rating. Maybe Dominion just sees a cheap way to buy access to more customers and markets. None of that really justifies a “No” vote.

How We Choose

My focus on choice may come as a surprise to some, especially when it comes to electricity. Some people think that a one-size-fits-all strategy makes sense when it comes to flipping the switch and seeing a light come on. So I thought it might be worthwhile to hint at some of the complexity in it – some of the things that your neighbors may, or may not, want to keep in mind when making these decisions based on their own values.

So naturally there’s monetary cost as it stands today in the marketplace. That should be pretty easy to determine – just look at what is being charged. But someone might want to look a little past that: what it really costs in total, including taxpayers picking up part of the bill for you in the form of subsidies.

There’s environmental factors. On some level we’re all “environmentalists” to one degree or another, because this is our home and we want our descendants to inherit it. For some people this consideration might be as simple as the carbon footprint of operation, or maybe the total carbon emissions including construction costs of replacement. Other people may want to take into account the disruption to ecosystems that otherwise ‘green’ sources like tidal energy may incur. There’s also “natural beauty” arguments against things that are seen as eyesores. For my part I actually kind of like the look of wind turbines and wouldn’t hold that against them. But that’s just my opinion. It shouldn’t really matter what I think about how your community looks.

It could be corporation-specific. You could want to boycott a particular energy producer for any number of reasons. Perhaps you don’t like the way they treat their employees, or some corporate policy rubs you the wrong way. Maybe you don’t like the way they spend their advertising dollars or you’re upset with them relocating jobs. Maybe you don’t like the CEO’s face, I don’t know. But whatever your exact concern is, that should be completely up to you. You shouldn’t have me deciding how reasonable it is.

There could be geopolitical factors for some. If equipment or fuel for a particular energy source is being imported in a way that enriches a government you distrust, it’s conceivable you may want to reduce your consumption of that energy. In our current situation that’s not usually about retail electric consumption, unless you have major issues with Canada, but as electric vehicles are becoming more common and more practical these issues become more interconnected.

One most people overlook, but would weigh heavily for me if I were able to make my own energy purchasing choices, can be summarized in a simple-sounding metric: human deaths per megawatt-hour. Human life is precious, and if there’s one cost outside of dollars and cents that I’d like to consider, it is the cost in human lives. Actually calculating that number could be a little tricky depending on how you do it, but I think Forbes did a good job a few years back of coming up with pretty reasonable numbers and explaining it to the layperson. Some of the analysis in that article was a little wrong-headed, but the numbers are about as good as you’ll find without diving really deep. And if you want to do that, the references at the bottom of that article aren’t a bad place to start.

The fact that solar panels on roofs kill more than 4,000 times as many people per unit energy than nuclear power (US-style) shouldn’t come as a surprise. Those panels have to get up there somehow, and installing them is every bit as dangerous as any other type of roofing work. And the panels don’t provide much power so we don’t get to spread that risk out. But that shouldn’t be taken as an insult to solar panels. If someone wants to put solar panels on their house we’re not going to tell them not to do that because they might fall any more than we would tell them not to clean their gutters or re-shingle their house. That’s their choice. If anything, I take it as a testament to just how very safe nuclear is. Most of what’s getting counted against nuclear there actually comes from the fact that uranium miners have higher rates of cancer than non-miners (still lower than coal miners, of course). We can’t prove that’s caused by their occupation – surely someone will claim that miners are more likely to smoke or something. But to be on the safe side, one might as well assume it is the fault of the mining. So those “extra” cancer deaths count against nuclear, and that’s the reason that number’s as high as it is.

Now, maybe you don’t agree with this assessment of the safety of nuclear power. I know and respect people who disagree strongly. We all have different ways of seeing the world, and I don’t think it would be fair for me to force you to support what I think is best. That’s part of the reason I take issue with the Plant Vogtle project. If someone wants to build a nuclear power plant they need to be responsible for finding voluntary ways of funding that (presumably mostly by borrowing money from investors). Instead they’re forcing you to pay for it in advance on your electric bill, even if you wholeheartedly believe it’s the wrong thing to do. Even if you somehow refuse to purchase electricity at all, your taxes help to fund this project that should, in principle, be able to eventually pay for itself through profits. And that’s not to speak of the tax incentives they received directly.

This sort of central planning approach has additional problems. What made anyone think they’d complete the project on-time and within budget, when they could continue making money without producing any results? If we keep electing the same people to the PSC (or their proteges), they can make you just keep paying forever. And the biggest argument from the commissioners why they keep this going? If the cancel the project, even after it has missed deadlines, we have to pay the company even more.

Now, I ask you, if you were calling the shots as a consumer, would you sign up for a deal like that? They say they’ll do something, but if they don’t deliver you keep paying, and if you ever change your mind you pay more? And even if they do deliver, this thing you helped pay for, you don’t own it.

Thougts on Qualification

With the qualifying process behind us, I thought it might be a good time to take stock of the latest developments. There are now five candidates seeking this office: two from the Republican wing of the establishment party; two from the Democratic wing of the establishment party; and one from the Libertarian Pary: yours truly.

If you want to see the official list of who these five people are, there’s actually two different searches you need to do at the Secretary of State website. The first will show you those who have only been qualified to run in a primary:

And there’s another search for those who are already qualified for the general election:

The reason for the two versions is because the various parties choose their nominees in different ways, and mine is already finished – I’m already nominated. For the record, I prefer our approach. Parties are not a part of our system. They are not democratic institutions belonging to the public. They’re private clubs. And my private club makes its internal decisions at a convention – effectively at a meeting of our private club that our members pay for. The Republican and Democratic parties instead use tax money to run elections where people not in any way associated with their party can be involved. Even I could vote in their nomination process, if I wanted to.

We can’t directly blame the Republicans and Democrats as a whole for this. It’s the law. They must have primaries, and we may not. It’s directly connected to the reason our legislative candidates must collect an abusive number of certified signatures in order to appear on your ballot, even though the majority of legislative elections will have ONLY ONE candidate. That’s also a law that applies to us and not them. The observant among us may point out these laws were written by Republicans and Democrats and perhaps not coincidentally supress their competition.

A number of media outlets have seized upon the opportunity from that candidate search to be the first one to let you know who will be on your ballots. Often they add nothing more than what was available on that site, but finding and publishing the information in a more readable fashion is a valuable service. But the fact that my name is in a different search from all the more establishment candidates, you may have guessed this, means I’m not usually mentioned. Journalists are generally incentivized to be the first one to press, not necessarily being the one with the deeper coverage.

One place I was mentioned, briefly, was the Insider Advantage blog. This came out before qualifying, so it was based on GA GF&CFC (formerly State Ethics Commission) filings, and so it does not include mention of the last-minute entrants. And the passing, largely dismissive mention of my campaign is certainly understandable if you were to put yourself in the author’s shoes. Let me explain.

If you are a political commentator, your expectations can only be driven by past results. If you look at the past PSC elections, it would seem that every single time, whichever candidate is the most establishment wins. Incumbents win. Career politicians win. You can look at who the utility companies that are supposed to be regulated by the Commission are throwing money at, and figure out who won those past elections.

And it’s true that these things do not apply to me. My party doesn’t get special, state-granted privileges. I have not been appointed by the governor even once, let alone twice. The utility companies have not donated one cent to my campaign, while an opponent reported taking hundreds of thousands of dollars from them before the end of January. And it’s certainly true that my campaign got off to a bit of a slow start (though I’d like to point out that Mr. Stoner didn’t have one at all at that time). You see, all of the people involved in my campaign are volunteers who, like me, work regular jobs and have families. We’re trying to do this the way politics was supposed to be done: real people acting out of a passion for a better way of doing things, not as an excuse to avoid contributing to the productive sector of society.

So one could be forgiven for thinking it’s a lost cause. “You can’t take on these juggernauts. Things are the way they are and always will be,” you might think. But then, why have an election at all? This way of thinking is completely wrong-headed.

This is an election. It’s not a contest or a race. There are no odds. There are no chances. No one is flipping a coin or rolling dice to decide who will be on the commission. An election is not a game. An election is nothing more or less than choice. It is a decision the voters will have to make. If you decide I will be on the Commission, then I will. If you decide on someone else, then they will. That’s all there is to it.

I’m running for the Public Service Commission so that voters will have a real choice on their ballot, and if elected, real choices thereafter. If you want to tell me about some “odds” that you imagine in your head, you can keep it to yourself.

Question

I’m running for the Public Service Commission to empower Georgians to choose their own way to thrive whenever possible. The PSC exists to serve you, not the highest bidder.

So let’s not put the cart before the horse. This campaign is about the voter. You’re a voter. What do you want to see from the Public Service Commission? If our power, gas, and phone were provided by a free market, you would have choices to make. What would you be choosing?

I’m listening.