Have you ever noticed how the words we use to describe something often lose their meaning? Take the word “utility,” for example. The American Heritage Dictionary defines it as “the quality or condition of being useful.” This implies a benefit to the end user that would not exist otherwise. In terms of a “public utility,” the dictionary defines it as “A private company supplying water, gas, electricity, telephone service or the like, which is granted a monopoly by the government and then regulated by the government.”
Taken together, one could logically assume that society, as the end user, would reap overall benefits from the existence of public utilities. In part, this is true. But what happens when a utility, whose existence is by definition to serve the public, makes decisions that are not in its best interests?
Unfortunately, this scenario occurs all too often. Public utilities are companies that should make a reasonable profit, but not at the public’s expense. With diminishing reserves of fossil fuels and the impact their use is having on our climate, efficient use of these precious resources is paramount.
Let’s look around our neighborhoods. Have you ever heard of gas lamp communities? These are supposed to be quaint developments that use pole-mounted, gas-fueled lamps instead of electric streetlights. Prospective home buyers are lulled into the vision of evening strolls through the neighborhood, softly lit from the glow of gas lamps. That is until they get the bill.
Why? Because gas lamps never turn off. They burn 24/7. It’s difficult to think of anything more inefficient than continuously burning natural gas to provide street lighting that may be of actual use for only a few hours each evening.
I have gotten many calls from residents and homeowners associations that are looking for ways to get out from under the burden of huge gas bills due to the gas lighting systems in their communities. This problem is indicative of the larger issue of resource use. Are we really being smart about how we use energy? Are utilities doing all they can to promote wise use of resources?
The Southwest Gas Web site has some interesting information on the topic. Reading it can give the impression it was written by someone with multiple personalities.
If you look carefully, you will find information on energy efficiency with statements like, “Energy conservation is important.” Unfortunately, you also will find plenty of marketing material that reads otherwise.
The Southwest Gas 2005 Annual Report explains that “Aggressive marketing initiatives of the past, and the added emphasis on non-traditional uses of natural gas, such as outdoor fireplaces, tiki torches, open barbecue pits, patio heaters and outdoor kitchens, have enabled the Company to realize a systemwide average market share of 90 percent of new-home construction.”
Regarding gas lighting, the Web site informs us that “dependable gas lights keep sidewalks and driveways safely lit” and that “Natural gas pool and spa heaters offer the soothing pleasures of warm water all year-round.” In a climate that experiences freezing temperatures during winter, heating an outdoor pool with gas (or electricity) is an incredibly expensive and wasteful indulgence. So much for the importance of conservation.
The irony is that by promoting the ever-increasing burning of its fossil fuels, the company’s bottom line is actually suffering. Again, quoting the annual report, “Simply stated, 2005 financial results were disappointing … we had hoped for much better.” One of the principle factors that adversely affected earnings: “lost operating margin resulting from warmer-than normal weather.” Maybe if we could turn off some of those gas lamps things would cool down.
The report goes on, “Unfortunately, weather still continues to be a factor in the variability of the Company’s operating margin and earnings. 2005 marked the 10th warmest year in 111 years of recorded information for the states of Arizona and Nevada.” According to practically every credible scientist on the planet, “warmer than normal weather” is being caused by, you guessed it, the burning of fossil fuels.
As profits declined due to global warming, the report states that gas rates were raised to offset reduced sales. Why are prices rising so much?
The Southwest Gas Web site reads, “Natural gas comes from a plentiful supply in North America,” and “Natural gas is not a ‘manufactured’ fuel, so it’s less costly to produce and deliver to your home.” The fact is that natural gas is a nonrenewable fuel, just like oil and coal, and supplies are dwindling. As it runs out, prices rise.
It is incumbent on public utilities to put the public interest above all else. This is the only path toward sustainability and long-term benefits to citizens and utility shareholders. Conservation requires more than a few lines on a Web site. Results are what matter.
Do gas lamp neighborhoods make sense? It’s up to all of us to remember what “utility” really stands for: the quality or condition of being useful for the long run.
Steve Rypka is a green living consultant and president of GreenDream Enterprises, specializing in renewable energy, green building, alternative transportation and lifestyle choices for both residential and commercial clients. The company is committed to helping people live lighter on the planet. Steve can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. More information relating to this column is posted at www.greendream.biz.