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Power to the People 

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Too bad this column was due the morning before PacificCorp officials got a public hearing before the Utah Public Service Commission regarding complaints of inadequate post-storm service. Then again, everyone knows the figures by now: 70,000 people without power after Christmas Day plus 14,000 people without power New Year’s Day, and a less than contrite PacificCorp admission that its automated outage system wasn’t up to snuff. Good thing we can always blame Mother Nature.

Be thankful, then, that Salt Lake City Councilman David Buhler endured life without power for three days. Otherwise PacificCorp might merely brush off the complaints of ordinary citizens as just so many flies. As it is, the company will now field more pointed questions from a council member who probably found the path to his bathroom by candlelight. What about all those outage crew support personnel shipped down from Idaho, Washington and Oregon? If the utility gets its proposed rate increase, which could be the largest increase in 15 years, who will see that it’s put back into infrastructure that can withstand future storms of this magnitude?

Even in press reports before the winter storm, the power company insisted it was doing all it could. Granted, the state has had so many mild winters for so long, it should come as no surprise that its crews were perhaps less than ready. And that proposed rate hike? That will help reimburse the company from 2001’s surge in wholesale energy costs. Remember the days when Gov. Mike Leavitt was telling us to tone down the holiday lights so we could sell power to California?

For a country fond of gas-gulping SUVs, and an almost equal number of people fond of criticizing those gas-gulping SUVs, this small crisis sends a collective signal that we’d better pay attention to the nation’s collective energy plan. That is, if we have one.

In his State of the Union address one year ago, President Bush talked of stoking hydrogen power research to the tune of $1.2 billion. Who among us will be surprised that even five years from now we will probably be even more dependent on foreign oil? Even as consumers, our energy goals often run at cross-purposes. We love the cleaner burn of natural gas over coal for generating our electricity. We, of course, hate the fact that electricity rates are bound to rise with the price of natural gas, the supply of which is running low. Our government invests millions in researching alternative sources of energy, and then abandons them. Elected representatives debate an energy bill chock-full of big breaks for the power brokers. Then there are these words from Vice President Dick Cheney, a man fond of discussing energy matters in secret meetings: “Conservation may be a sign of personal virtue, but it is not a sufficient basis for a sound, comprehensive energy policy.”

That’s a sure sign you might want to stock up on candles.

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