Thursday, May 09, 2013
The ice storm of 2009 left hundreds of thousands of people in Arkansas without power. During the storm, one tree that borders my yard on a public street below me leaned over, but didn’t fall. It is lopsided, and leaning into the power line. About once a year since the storm I have contacted SWEPCO to ask them about trimming the tree going over the power line so it is less hazardous.
A couple of times SWEPCO contractors have come to look at the tree, and said, “We will get to you later when we are working in Eureka Springs.” Then they never show up. About a year ago I got a call for a customer satisfaction survey asking me how satisfied I was with my electric service. Electric companies routinely do this type of “survey” in order to increase rates as some public service commissions will give utilities a financial bonus for high customer service rankings. Of course, that means often the “questions” are designed to elicit a high ranking.
I don’t like being tricked into answers that will increase my rates, especially by a company that continues to ignore the most serious challenge facing the Earth – climate change caused largely by burning fossil fuels. SWEPCO built the huge new highly polluting coal-fired Turk power plant in southern Arkansas, even though the power was not needed for Arkansas, because of existing natural gas generating plants that pollute far less.
In a stunning display of being “too big to have to abide by the same laws as the rest of us,” SWEPCO continued to build the plant even after a Certificate of Environmental Compatibility and Public Need for the $2-billion Turk Plant was revoked by the Arkansas Court of Appeals in 2010. In December, the Turk plant started belching noxious fumes including deadly sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide and mercury.
SWEPCO discovered a loophole in Arkansas law that permits operation of the plant provided the power is not sold in Arkansas, except for 12 percent of the dirty coal owned by the Arkansas Electric Cooperation Association, which continues to love dirty coal and denies there is any connection between burning fossil fuels and climate change. The fact that the polar ice caps have melted faster in past 20 years than in the past 10,000 years is just a coincidence.
In the SWEPCO survey, I rated them low because of the lack of response on the hazardous tree, in addition to building the Turk coal plant that can burn 9,000 tons of coal per day, 3,285,000 tons per year. As a result, I did get a call back from the SWEPCO contractor who said, “Oh, I remember you. We forgot about that tree. We’ll get to you soon.”
The tree just grows more into the line.
Now we have SWEPCO trying to rush through permission to make more than $117 million off its captive ratepayers by building a new transmission line, allegedly to improve reliability and meet demand for electricity in Northwest Arkansas and into Missouri. Plans for this were made back when growth was going gangbusters before the Great Recession, and opponents of the new power line that would draw a huge, ugly scar across some of the Natural State’s most beautiful views and most vulnerable environments are finding no concrete evidence for the need for this new “energy superhighway.”
Is it just a coincidence that the Turk Power Plant started operation in December? I don’t think so. SWEPCO now has a lot of dirty coal fired power to sell, and needs bigger transmission lines to sell more.
If SWEPCO was really concerned with service reliability, why has it not removed this tree hazard? If someone is injured or killed one day by this tree falling, SWEPCO could be liable for a large lawsuit settlement.
But the sad fact is electric monopolies like SWEPCO are a unique business model. If they did get hit with a million dollar settlement for not removing a known hazard, they would just pass along that cost to their ratepayers – AND MAKE A PROFIT ON IT.
SWEPCO is guaranteed a return on equity of 10.2 percent. Monopolies are unlike any other business in the country. Other businesses only survive by controlling expenses. Monopolies have a vested interest in spending like there is no tomorrow.
Monopolies get paid more the more they spend and are guaranteed a high rate of return. This has led again and again to utilities over estimating the need for new power plants, office buildings and power transmission lines. A retired Highway Patrolman I knew who worked for utility deregulation once told me: “A power company would rather spend a $1 for a pencil than 5 cents.”
SWEPCO is saddling its ratepayers with projects in the hundreds of millions. But when it comes to simple thing like following trimming a tree hanging over power lines, SWEPCO seems to not uninterested. Must not be enough money in it.
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