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For the week of December 13 through 19, 2000

Power play

Wasnít California smart?

When the state de-regulated electricity, it bought into the free market mantra that the private sector is better than government at meeting public needs.

Despite the history of phone service after the breakup of Ma Bell, California embraced the mantra anyway.

Now itís reaping the benefitsórolling blackouts through last summerís heat and threats of the same this month if it canít buy enough power from a chillier-than-normal Northwest.

Some workers at a Kaiser aluminum smelter in Washington are reaping the benefits, too. They just got pink slips for a 10-month layoff. Under its contract with the Bonneville Power Administration, Kaiser can sell any power it doesnít use. The revenue--$52 million in December aloneóis more than it can make manufacturing aluminum and paying the cost of laying off workers.

So much for a merry Christmas for their families. So much for the magic of de-regulation.

The problems are so clear, even Idaho can read the handwriting on the wall.

Idaho legislators scurried to Boise last week for a special session and passed a bill to head off de-regulation. Talk about a power breakfast.

Idaho Gov. Dirk Kempthorne called the session because he was convinced a federal appeals court ruling could leave businesses and rate payers at the mercy of richer states and industries in the fight for electricity.

Idaho is not the richest state in the union, but its farms and industries have benefited from low power ratesóthe result of a regulated industry and cheap hydro power.

Deregulation could change that. Farmers and industrial workers were recently worried the effect on electrical costs of releasing more water through dams to improve salmon survival. The threat was nothing compared to ending up on the wrong side of the regional power play.

The Legislature was nearly unanimous in slamming closed a legal loophole opened by a recent federal appeals court ruling. The House voted 70-0 and the Senate 30-2 on a bill that Kempthorne signed immediately.

The haste was necessary. The court ruling had left Idaho without regulatory authority over jurisdictional disputes between electric utilities--essentially de-regulating the market.

As the realities of de-regulation set in, Idaho should engage the rest of the nation in a long overdue discussion about conservation. The state should try to refuel interest in development of affordable solar energy systems to reduce demand on the power grid and to avert the twin threats of high prices and scarcity.


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