Beware Of Greeks Bearing Gifts
And so, too, is my borrowing of the saying to describe an interesting development on the utility competition front. Crossing my desk recently was an unsolicited manuscript by one M. William Brier, vice president, marketing and communication, of the Edison Electric Institute, the trade association of the electric utility industry. It was an op-ed commentary aimed at contractor publications — although someone at EEI forgot to stroke some keys in the word processor and it went out under the title, “Only Truly Competitive Electricity Markets Will Benefit Manufacturers.” Having suffered my share of typos, I will refrain from gloating, but not from noting that the mistake inadvertently draws attention to the article’s status as boilerplate propaganda.
Stating Their Case: The gist of the article is that contractors/manufacturers (choose your audience) are wrong-headed in trying to put restrictions on utility affiliates, such as those engaged in marketing PHC services. “The full promise of electricity competition for contractors — choice and savings, product and service innovations, and ultimately, stronger local economies — stands threatened,” warns Brier.
“Let’s say the local electric company, who knows you, understands your operation, would like to make an offer to help you reduce your costs and improve your productivity with innovative energy services,” he writes. “You may not have the option of working with them, because of these forced mandates.”
Something to think about for all of you folks out there whose local utilities, being so knowledgeable and understanding of your business — bless their big hearts — have offered to help you reduce costs and improve your productivity. Kind of reminds me of that special helping hand mobsters offer to small business owners who are in need of protection.
“We believe that state-imposed, discriminatory restraints ... are unnecessary, anti-competitive, and will artificially distort the retail marketplace,” Brier continues. “Those who will benefit under these regulations are the other competitors, not manufacturers” — oops, someone at EEI better get the hang of working with glossaries.
“Utilities and their affiliates should be free to use their resources ... to the best of their ability. Let the marketplace, not the statehouse, decide who wins or loses the battle for new customers.” And what’s in it for contractors? In Brier’s vision, there’s “expanded choice ... lower electricity prices ... and inspired product and service innovation.”
Freedom For Slave Traders: In many another context most of us would heartily endorse such a stirring appeal for free enterprise. Except this has a disingenuous quality, like arguing on behalf of free markets for slave traders. The central issue, that of a level playing field between utility PHC service providers and independent contractors, goes unaddressed. Brier also seems oblivious to the stark reality that a few pennies saved on electrons would be meaningless for contractors driven out of business by cross-subsidized competitors.
Interesting, though, isn’t it, that utility interests find it prudent to gear up their PR machinery for the war of words surrounding deregulation. Until now they have been largely silent in public, preferring to twist the arms of chummy legislators in more private settings.
Although the typos reveal contractors to be merely one category of propagandee, the fact that they are singled out at all signifies that our industry’s message is getting across. It could be that legislators across the land are starting to sense tinges of sympathy for the underdog among their constituents.
Deregulation is under way in many states, and the EEI article makes it clear that the utility industry does not like the results of some of those preliminary matches. As more state battles get joined and a national bill draws closer, the utilities seem to be getting nervous. Deregulation is going to happen, make no mistake about that. But it looks like the rules may be more palatable to independent contractors than many may have first assumed. Keep up the pressure.