A few humble suggestions for utilities

Filed under: Hazlehurst |

In common with every other homeowner in Colorado Springs, I got the usual nasty little January surprise in the mail a few days ago — my utility bill.
It was bad. Really bad. So bad that I thought briefly about relocating to a place with a mild, equable climate, where the temperature year-round ranges between, say, 65 and 80 degrees — neither too hot nor too cold. Goodbye furnace, goodbye air conditioner, goodbye utility bills.
Yup, there are such places — try Santa Barbara, or Carmel, or any of a score of communities so unaffordable that the mere millionaires have been driven out of town by the billionaires. Not exactly a viable alternative …
Anyway, it’s partially my fault, since I choose to live in a drafty, ramshackle multi-story Victorian with ill-fitting storms, lousy insulation, single-pane windows with original wavy glass — a house as beautiful as it is energy-inefficient.
So once I’d recovered from the bill’s awful bottom line, I thought I’d take a look at the perky little brochure that came with it, as well as Colorado Springs Utilities’ Web site, and see what energy-saving suggestions our municipally-owned utility might have for its hapless customers.
It was pretty much “round up the usual suspects,” to quote the immortal line from “Casablanca.”
Buy efficient appliances, xeriscape your garden, insulate your house, replace incandescent bulbs with compact fluorescents, turn down the heat, seal drafts, use energy-efficient window coverings — sensible stuff, I guess.
But they had one thing in common. To act on most of them, I’d have to do the very thing that was causing me so much present anguish — write a check.
Somehow, I thought that utilities might have some modern demand-side management tools available to its customers. After all, even the universally despised cable company offers a variety of packages to suit almost any pocket — doesn’t CSU have something similar?
What about time-of-day pricing, or real-time energy use monitoring? How about remotely controlled thermostats that customers could reset over the Internet?
Nope. There’s none of that, unless you count a pilot program limited to 500 customers, using remote thermostats. OK, I’ll sign up — but, alas, I’m not eligible, because I don’t have central air conditioning.
In terms of offering its customers other than self-financed ways to cut energy use, CSU is woefully behind the times.
Take time-of-day pricing, for example.
Many — make that most — utilities offer customers low late-night rates, to encourage them to run appliances such as dishwashers and clothes dryers when demand is low. The utility uses its generating capacity more efficiently, and thereby postpones the need for new plants. Good for the environment, good for customers, good for everybody — but not, apparently, good for CSU.
CSU can’t even do it if they wanted to, since many of their electric and gas meters are ancient mechanical devices which can’t monitor energy use by time of day. But the utility is actually replacing them — why, it’ll all be finished in 2010!
But that’s OK, isn’t it — after all, aren’t CSU’s average rates among the lowest in Colorado?
For the moment, yes. The “typical” monthly combined electric and gas bill is $112.08 here, $129.61 in Pueblo, and a whopping $186.55 in Denver. The national average is $161.13.
That’s a result of a number of factors that now work in our favor.
We generate most of our own power, and don’t buy much in the secondary market. We managed to successfully hedge against high gas prices. And much of our housing stock is comparatively new, and thus more energy-efficient, than that of other jurisdictions.
But we may be losing some of those advantages. While hedging can protect us against dramatic price spikes, it can’t protect us against long-term secular increases. And we’ll need to build another electrical generating plant fairly soon — a plant that may well be required by law to incorporate expensive carbon sequestration techniques. In other words, it’ll cost plenty.
And that’s not even considering our water bills, which, we all know, will skyrocket during the next few years, thanks to the billion-dollar bill for the southern delivery system.
So here are a couple of suggestions for CSU.
n Move quickly — and I mean quickly as measured by private business, not quickly as measured by sluggish bureaucracies — to install hi-tech metering systems, which will allow customers to monitor and control energy usage in real time. Absent such information, it’s hard to make practical, energy-saving decisions — as the business mantra goes, “you can’t manage what you don’t measure.”
n Create and fund a program that goes beyond the present “energy audits” and gives customers a verifiable, house-specific cost analysis of energy-saving upgrades. It’d cost me, at a guess, between $20,000 and $50,000 to make my old dump as energy-efficient as possible. If a utilities analysis could confirm the specific amounts of expected average monthly savings, maybe I could justify borrowing the dough to make the improvements.
Absent expert analysis, I won’t do it — and neither will the bank, or even my friendly mortgage broker, both of whom regard me with a certain, shall we say, skepticism.
Meanwhile, have you noticed how obsessed our leading nonprofits, concerned citizens, and community leaders are with … leadership?
Go to El Pomar’s Web site, and you’ll find program after program devoted to training leaders, mentoring future leaders, bringing leaders together, learning from different leadership styles, blah, blah, blah.
And it’s not as if this is a recent phenomenon. More than 30 years ago, when Citizen’s Goals (the predecessor to half-a-dozen similarly named organizations) was formed, one of its primary goals was to train and empower the leaders of tomorrow.
Countless wannabe leaders have been duly instructed in the art of leadership, to little apparent effect. Many of our community leaders — think Douglas Bruce, Dave Schultheis, Ted Haggard, James Dobson — come from an entirely different leadership tradition. They’re smart, fiercely ambitious and unconventional — as are many, even most, of those who ascend to power.
If indeed they do bother with a leadership course, it’s just to network, not to learn. It may be that folks who end up as leaders do so because of natural aptitude, and that the courses are inconsequential.
Maybe, instead of teaching leadership, we ought to be teaching “followership.” Is it better to have slick, skilful charismatic “leaders” or informed, skeptical followers?
If the voters were better at spotting scoundrels, charlatans and snake oil artists, we might not have had to deal with ditsy elected officials and bizarre, voter-approved state constitutional amendments.
Otherwise, leadership courses are, at bottom, about deception and bluff — about teaching smart, articulate folks the black arts of politics. It’s like learning how to palm the ace of spades, or how to shave dice — just another way to get an edge.
I wonder whether El Pomar, which refuses to make grants to public K-12 education, might do well to leave the leaders to their own devices and concentrate on building better followers.
And I’ll be glad to help. For a small honorarium, I can teach anyone to palm an ace … just don’t sit with your back to the door. Remember, you can’t manage what you don’t measure, especially if you’re holding aces and eights.
Just ask Wild Bill Hickok.
John Hazlehurst can be reached at John.Hazlehurst@csbj.com or 227-5861.