JUICE: Veni, Vidi, Vent-i

By Published On: June 9, 2011

It doesn’t matter whether you agree with the persistent “smart” meter opt-outers. They may or may not actually be physically assaulted by digital technology. They may be subject to hysteria. But, they are the public and they are utility customers. Personally, I’m agnostic on the potential health threat of electro-magnetic frequencies emitted by meters, but I’m religious about protecting those precious public comment minutes before regulators. Regulators are neither physicians, priests, nor psychologists. In their own regulatory god-like way, they are final decision makers. They are publically employed and gubernatorial-sponsored embodiments of what should be right with this regulatory world. In California, regulated energy utilities make up about a $50 billion/year business. To have the final word in that world is no small responsibility--neither to those regulated, nor to their customers. Without the black robes, commissioners decide what Jane & John Q public’s monthly tithe to the, um, “powers” that be shall be. They decide whether new technologies, like radio-frequency meters, will be foisted upon customers whether they like it or not. Enter public backlash. It’s been decades--probably since Diablo Canyon was approved by regulators--since the public has poured its collective guts out over and over before the commission. Not even the energy crisis brought the outpouring seemingly prompted by digital meters. For all these years, commissioners have gone about their business in relative quiet. Then, “smart” meters arrived on everyone’s doorstep. Radio-frequency meters opened a floodgate of public interest in what was considered the arcane subject of regulated utilities. The California Public Utilities Commission has been so inundated with public venting in the last year that it moved its meeting time up an hour--from 10 a.m. to 9 a.m.--just to accommodate the influx of public comments. The commission under Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (circa 2010) often seemed uncomfortable with letting the masses in on its decision making. The 2011 commission with Gov. Jerry Brown’s appointees appears more welcoming. At the beginning of every meeting, regulators are obligated to listen to the public. Regulators may be weary and wary, but those washed and coiffed masses who manage to travel to downtown San Francisco, then swing the parking and hotel rates, deserve to be heard. Those are precious minutes before regulators when anyone--Jane Q. Publics, lobbyists, stray cranks--gets their short share of public servants’ time. I’ve been there--travelled for hours, couch surfed for the night, edited my speaking notes, and sweated for my two minutes. It may not look like much from the dais, but it is certainly a big deal to supplicants. I congratulate regulators. In the last year, public participation is awesome. It might crimp regulators’ past style, but they’re successfully adapting. It’s 9 a.m. on a Thursday. The vent-i sized coffee’s in hand. The public is now a part of the regulatory process. Welcome.

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