The <i>Grid Vine</i>

By Published On: July 22, 2005

Newspapers confirmed last week what Dr. Snarky Sparks already knew?that drug companies rely on advertising to sell pharmaceuticals. In the last few weeks, the state?through the organization Flex Your Power, which is, in turn, administered through Southern California Edison?is relying on advertising to sell conservation. It’s tough for the Dr. to believe that the commercial with the bewildering barking seal in the faux appliance store has any effect on the desire to turn on an air conditioner any more than a commercial with a beefy guy throwing a football through a tire swing has any effect on raising the desire to desire. But hey, they say that advertising?no matter how lame?works. Perhaps the advertising helped, but a bit of overcast probably did more to dampen what was expected to be record-high electricity use in Southern California last week, and may or may not be putting a damper on this week’s record forecast. Still, as long as the Dr.’s and all her patients’ rates pay for the Flex Your Power advertising, she’d like at least to be more amused, and less bewildered, by the message. Flex isn’t alone in the lame-o department when it comes to ads. Dr. Snarky hasn’t seen all these, but a few of her patients reviewed some recent energy advertising that falls into the limp, if not flaccid, category:<ul><li>A coal commercial showing buffed women in Gap-stylish khakis prancing about, while the Merle Travis coal-mining song recorded by Tennessee Ernie Ford, “Sixteen Tons,” plays in the background. For those of you who can?’ remember the lyrics: You load sixteen tons, what do you get/Another day older and deeper in debt/Saint Peter don’t you call me ’cause I can’t go/I owe my soul to the company store. This is supposed to sell coal, like barking seals sell efficient appliances?</li> <li>A talking bald eagle, previously a coughing bald eagle, selling the attributes of cleaning up power plants.</li> <li>A woman walking through a darkened house with a light at the end of the tunnel that becomes the Constellation logo.</li> <li>A young couple being able to dance it up in a disco because two turntables and a microphone are plugged into Areva’s nuclear power.</li> <li>A couple bragging about being able to go to the movies with their appliance-efficiency rebate.</li> <li>An old water heater that escapes a potential remodeling, taking the family car with it. The commercial would be better to sell car insurance than PG&E’s efficiency message.</li> <li>Another Flex commercial with an earwig buying a ceiling fan. Yes, that?’ a creepy little insect supposedly purchasing an alternative to air conditioning. Dr. Snarky thinks that Flex’s medicine cabinet should be locked tight and suggests Flex make an appointment on the couch with her office mate, Dr. Shrinky.</li></ul>Unlike drug ads, these were not accompanied by the speed-spoken small print that warns you to see your doctor if the condition persists for more than four hours. Yet the small print can be found if you look for it. As much time as Dr. Snarky spends considering how to keep her patients from getting coughing fits from direct power plant pollution, or worrying about heat prostration from power plants’ contribution to global warming, this fine print stopped her dead in her well-worn worrying tracks. An recent item in <i>Harper’s</i> “index” section notes that replacing power plants with windmills for a project on Long Island saves just about the same amount of carbon dioxide pollution that is spewed out by a single trans-Atlantic airplane flight. Dr. Snarky would give you the details, but <i>Harper’s</i> didn’t give reprint permission for this item, and Snarky’s a stickler for avoiding copyright violations. You’ll just have to pick up the July issue instead. This next item strikes the doctor as a fine way to raise some money to bank against the rising cost of health care. If only the California Energy Commission and the California Public Utilities Commission would follow the Contra Costa County Board of Supervisors’ example. In board meetings, the supervisors agreed to fine themselves $1 for each acronym used. One supe challenged the others, saying that he would pitch in $10 if a single member could get through a whole meeting without using an acronym. In the energy world, that would be quite a challenge. Sure, it would apply to most shorthand that, to the outsider, is gobbledy gook?acronyms like ISO and TURN and EIR and IGCC?but would generally understood acronyms be an offense? SMUD and PG&E, well, everyone calls them that. We write it out for you in our initial reference in <i>Circuit</i>, but no one really talks like that. Snarky would let those latter references slide but charge a treble fine for the “verbization” of acronyms. In a recent workshop at the California Independent System Operator (“grid operator” for short, not CAISO), the words “RUC-able’ and “IFM-able” actually crossed people’s lips (RUC being “residual unit commitment,” a process by which the grid operator decides which power plants to order on line to meet the next day’s forecast load, and IFM being “integrated forward market,” a plan to optimize energy, transmission, and ancillary services in the day-ahead, hour-ahead, and real-time markets). Then there was the odd locution “stakeholdering it.” Energy agencies could raise a whole lot more for the cause than the Contra Costa board. According to the press, in the first two weeks, they raised $47. Speaking of innovations, the CPUC?oops, the “state regulatory agency trying to keep a grip on its authority”?finally caught on to the absolutely best on-line community Web site in California: Craigslist. Seems the commission has had a bit of trouble recently recruiting young, healthy minds and bodies to government regulatory work. Still, the HR people?oops, the folks who inherit your “permanent record” from grade school?don’t seem to get in the Craigslist groove. Their announcements are like selling talking eagles on a medium that, honestly and truly, has a box for you to check if you want your yard sale, personal ad, chat-room dialogue, or ride-share offer disseminated into outer space. (Craigslist bought some bandwidth on a satellite for that purpose.) For those of you who still don’t have a clue what we’re talking about, try it yourself at <i>www.craigslist.org</i>. There, you too can find the irresistible commission want ads, such as: “The California Public Utilities Commission is now accepting applications for the Public Utilities Regulatory Analyst IV and V positions with a monthly salary range of $5196-6938, depending on experience and education. The minimum requirements to participate in the selection process are as follows: Either I One year of experience in the California state service performing technical research duties in public utilities and/or transportation regulation at a level of responsibility equivalent to that of Public Utilities Regulatory Analyst III; or two years of experience in the California state …” Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzz. That was a refreshing little nap. The healing power of sleep is underrated. On today’s to-do list is a note of congrats for B.B. Blevins on his new job as executive director of the CEC?er, the folks madly waving data supporting energy policy in hopes someone will notice. The fresh carrot juice from this morning is giving us a little edge on memory here, and the doctor remembers something about B.B. being appointed, and quietly unappointed, to the commission itself last year. Finally, just as Congress warms up to the reality of greenhouse gases and climate change?either because they have hurricanes, flooding, and record heat in their districts, or because they see a great big loophole to drive new nuclear plants though?House Energy and Commerce Committee chair Joe Barton (R-Texas) was called on the carpet by another powerful Republican for investigating scientists. These researchers were funded in part by the government and helped prompt the United Nations to acknowledge global warming. According to the <i>Washington Post</i>, Barton began investigating three scientists last month, asking them to justify their work. House Science Committee chair Sherwood Boehlert (R-New York) wrote to Barton that the purpose of his investigation “seems to be to intimidate scientists.”

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