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Electricity slips beneath the radar

Flip the switch,

Electrons flow;

With heavy costs,

That you don't know.

Electricity used to be simpler. Your power company would spend 10 years wheedling, cajoling, and bribing local citizens and politicians for the right to build a smelly plant along the river or down by the bay. In the end it got permission and soon trains or barges of coal and oil started showing up in the night. It was all very straightforward.

But soon enough, in crowded cities, that wasn't enough. Nuclear plants solved things for a while, but Americans rightly grew scared of them. Then high voltage lines started shipping juice long distances from big plants in remote areas to little customers in central areas. Now our sources of power have become so convoluted that we no longer have a clue where it's coming from. Nor is anyone likely to tell us.

What we do know is that from now on many of us users want it to come from renewable sources. Wind and sun sound pretty good. No more tribute to oil and coal barons and no more greenhouse gases. We'll each conserve energy too, with Energy Star appliances, solar panels, and curly light bulbs. Well, maybe 10 percent of us will.

The trouble is that wind and solar kilowatts don't come easy. They depend on government subsidies, just like oil, coal and nukes. But the renewables haven't yet built up a comparable corrupt lobbying and political structure, so their subsidies are much less reliable. This means that many companies start up and then go broke when the political climate changes and funding disappears. It's likely to remain that way until the giant fossil fuel industry finally gobbles up the hapless renewable industry.

That's already happening, but mostly just for corporate greenwashing purposes. At the moment there's still a lot more profit in blowing the tops off West Virginia mountains or in bribing Nigerian oil politicians than there is in investing in big power lines to ship clean juice from the Wind Belt to the Rust Belt.

What energy plutocrat in his right mind, for example, would reduce his government-supported fossil plants just in order to lose money taking on environmentalists who really don't want their iconic mountains sullied by his wind turbines? Or worse, taking on moneyed beachfront barons who oppose visual intrusion on their classic seascapes? Forget it.

Nor is it a simple matter to build those big power lines that are needed to bypass fossil pollution. Every route to bring in renewable power runs athwart some endangered species habitat, native American homelands, or testy residents. Sure we need to fight global warming, but not in my back yard.

Electricity's shadowy bureaucracies are no help either. FERC and NRC and ISOs and PUCs each have their own ladle in the pot, and are often more friendly to producers than to consumers or to nature. Most such agencies are also alert to the dangers of whistleblowers who squeal about what they're actually up to.

The Wall Street trading of electricity futures further thickens the plot. Enron didn't generate power - it just traded it, much like mortgage securities. That's how all electricity gets distributed now.

Is there a solution? Luckily, yes. State and local governments need to produce their own electricity. Many already do. Then they can avoid the cartels, the self-serving bureaucracies, and the corruption. Together they can own wind turbines, solar collectors, and power lines. Of course government ownership can be incompetent too, but at least that's our own incompetence and we can deal with it in November.

Columnist William A. Collins is a former state representative and a former mayor of Norwalk, Conn.