The Autumnal Equinox for Utilities
By Richard G. Johnstone, Jr.
September speaks of change. It speaks in the cacophonous cries of newly
filled schoolrooms, and in the soft whisper of a breeze lightly laced with the tangy smell
of wood smoke. The month of September also speaks to many of us through visible
changes in the landscape that begin in earnest during the month. The late esteemed nature
writer Hal Borland described Septembers most notable natural change the
autumnal equinox this way, in his classic 1957 book, This Hill, This Valley.
"The sun rose clear in the east this morning, and it will sink in the west, by
the compass, this evening; there is only a few seconds difference between the span
of todays light and tonights darkness. Thus ends the calendar Summer, with the
scarlet feathers of the sumac thrusting from roadside thickets, symbols of the Indian
Summer to come. Thus end all Summers, with the bronze of maturity rustling in the garden,
the crispness of Autumn in the air.
"I dont have to be an astronomer to recognize an Autumnal equinox. The
precise time, perhaps, the day and hour and second beyond the minute, is a matter to be
calculated by rules of celestial mechanics; but the season, the time of change, is written
on every bough and punctuated by every blade of grass ... It is there in the touch of a
leaf, the texture of a twig, tangible to the most casually inquisitive finger ...
"The obvious truth is that Summer is past. The season merges with Autumn. The
winesap reddens on the bough. The cricket chirps in the corner. The equinox is only a
Electric utilities in Virginia and many other states are now passing through their
"Autumnal equinox," as the long, comfortable summertime of life as regulated
monopolies ends, and deregulation and competition approach. Straight ahead is customer
choice actual competition among electric suppliers for the business of every
citizen and every company in the Commonwealth. Will the impending "Autumn" of
deregulation be a pleasant one for all? Or will it only be pleasant for some, while others
suffer from the cold pangs of higher prices? Much is uncertain as we enter this new
"season" for electric utilities.
This much, though, is certain. If not for electric cooperatives, the proverbial
"little guy" would likely be in for a long, cold fall and winter, too.
Electric cooperatives fought hard for average consumers when legislation was being passed
in the 1998 and 1999 sessions of the General Assembly, mandating that all Virginians have
choice of their electric supplier by January 1, 2004. Rate caps and other protections for
electric customers were supported by electric cooperatives, and were included in the
ultimate legislation. (Remember, consumers will only be choosing the utility that provides
their electricity. The utility that delivers this electricity to the home or business will
remain the same.)
The recent experience in southern California with electric utility deregulation
shows, though, that theres no clear (and perhaps no painless) path from regulated
monopoly to free-market competitor. Ratepayers in the San Diego area this past summer
saw their electric bills double and sometimes triple, as San Diego became the first area
in the state where utilities were allowed to pass along costs to consumers. And
unfortunately for San Diego residents, costs skyrocketed as increased demand for power met
a diminished supply. The city council declared a state of emergency, and the mayor asked
other cities to join in an effort to repeal the states deregulation law.
Virginia, of course, (thankfully) is decidedly NOT California. Virginias
legislators built in a longer timeline, and other consumer protections, in deregulating
the electric utility industry.
But as choice approaches, its not clear how many indeed, even whether
other utilities will be interested in serving the residential and small business
accounts that are the very heart and soul of electric cooperatives. But whether electric
utility deregulation ultimately ends up offering choice to all, or merely to the very
largest users, one thing is certain. And clear.
Virginias 13 consumer-owned electric cooperatives have served their communities
well for 65 years, providing top-notch service at reasonable rates to residences and
businesses in dozens of rural areas, small towns, and emerging suburbs across the
Commonwealth. This deep-rooted commitment to our consumer-owners will only grow
stronger as deregulation gains hold in the state.
Your electric utility of need in the past wants to be your electric utility of choice
in the future. We want to be a warm, comfortable and as always, dependable
blanket to help buffer you from whatever cold days may lie ahead.