Isn’t the point of an electric utility supposed to be making money by selling, you know, electricity?
By Jack Cashill
When your otherwise credible electric company rewards you for not using its services and does so by posting smiley faces on your “Home Energy Report,” you get the unsettling sense that something is amiss in the world of power. As far as I can tell, the report comes out once a month. In a recent report, my wife and I did “GREAT.” KCP&L rewarded us with not just one, but two smiley faces. We used less power than even our “efficient neighbors.” And as to “all neighbors”—the 100 nearest occupied homes—we smoked them!
Number 7 on the neighborhood Top 10! Na- na-na-na, na-na-na-na, hey, hey, good-bye!
In the midst of all this household glory, however, I felt the need to step back and think about the more profligate among my neighbors. Does KCP&L scold the Bottom 10 with a “must do better” or mark their reports with little pouty faces or mail them a Scarlet P?
A friend of mine—let’s call him “Joe”—very recently expressed some of these concerns to a contractor who had come to his home unbidden and unannounced to install a new “smart” meter. Joe asked if he could delay the installation until he could get some information from KCP&L, and the installer respectfully obliged.
Concerned, Joe called customer service and asked what kind of data KCP&L might be collecting. “Just data,” the rep told him grumpily. When he asked what fate might befall him if he chose not to have that data collected, she said the police would escort their employee to install the new meter. That was not comforting.
Joe persisted, this time reaching KCP&L’s corporate offices.
He had better luck there. The rep reassured him that there would be no police involved, but if he wanted electric power, a digital meter was definitely going to be part of his future.
Unlike many states, Missouri does not have an “opt-out” clause. The reporting nationwide on customers who do opt-out of a “smart” grid almost always zeroes in on their crankiness. In the press at least, these folks worry the device will cause cancer or burn down their house or interfere with the reception they get on their tin-foil hats.
Joe had no such issues. All he wanted to know was what kind of data KCP&L would be collecting and how they might use it in the future. Privacy struck him as a reasonable concern, and so too did external control. He wondered whether one day KCP&L’s cheerful urging “to save more” might be replaced by a federal mandate “to save more—or else.” And, if so, might his shiny new meter rat him out?
Although the rep did not treat Joe like a total whack job, she did tell him he was one of only 10 people in the metro to complain. The meters were safe, she assured him. She had one herself. Safety was not his worry, he reminded her, as she seemed to have forgotten.
When Joe called me to share his tale of woe, he found a receptive audience. I still had my Home Energy Report. It was so distinctive I saved it. All of the other companies that send me consumption reports—for miles flown, cars rented, purchases charged—congratulate me for using their service, even reward me. KCP&L was the only one that congratulated me for not using it.
There is, I know, a logic for power companies to discourage power use during peak season. This is something entirely different.
There is, I know, a logic for power companies to discourage power use during peak season. They do not want to build extra capacity to accommodate short, high-demand seasons, but that was not the logic behind my Home Energy Report.
I got a whiff of this new, inverted logic four years ago at an energy symposium sponsored by Ingram’s. One of the regulators in attendance lamented that power companies made more money—mirabile dictu!—when consumers used more energy. “We have got to change the business model,” he insisted.
“That has to change,” agreed a young politician who was in attendance at that session. He conceded that telling people they would have to pay more for energy would not be fun. “But,” he added, “I don’t see any other way to really solve one of the greatest issues that my generation faces, unless we start to talk about getting solutions.”
I asked the young politician what exactly that great issue was. So unused to hearing that question was he that he had almost forgotten how to answer it.
Gathering his wits, he insisted that the three primary energy resources—coal, oil, and natural gas—were running out. Scarier still, all three of them produced the carbon emissions that led to what was then known as global warming.
To be fair, much has changed in the four years since he said that. So much has changed, in fact, that in his 2014 State of the Union speech, even President Obama was bragging about “more oil produced at home than we buy from the rest of the world, the first time that’s happened in nearly 20 years.” Natural gas production, boasted Obama, was also “booming.”
As to global warming, John Coleman, veteran meteorologist and co-founder of the Weather Channel, recently said out loud what many of his colleagues have been whispering: “There is no significant man-made global warming at this time, there has been none in the past and there is no reason to fear any in the future.”
The nation’s power companies, KCP&L included, have to live in fear nonetheless—fear of the environmentalists, fear of the regulators, fear of the politicians all stuck on this perverse new status quo.
And with fear comes a business model that makes no business sense.
As a two-smiley face consumer, I may seem an unlikely complainant, but it is my way of coping with a deep-seated guilt. You see, my wife and I were gone the entire month for which we were celebrated, and we still only came in seventh. KCP&L, please don’t tell my neighbors!
Jack Cashill is Ingram's Senior Editor and has been affiliated with the magazine for more than 30 years. He can be reached at email@example.com. The views expressed in this column are the writer's own and do not necessarily reflect those of Ingram's Magazine.