Tuesday, August 01, 2006

The Dim Bulb Society

There I was, watching an afternoon news show on TV when the electricity went off. Really off—not just for me, but for the entire neighborhood.

It seems that my street and the one behind me are served by electricity from our back yards. There are three transformers that keep us all powered, and two of the three are more than forty years old. They were connected in parallel, which means they helped each other out. So when one blew, increased pressure was put on the other two and they went out rather quickly in the 107 degree heat.

I called Southern California Edison and got a recorded message that no one knew what was wrong with the power in my area, but that they were working on it.

Refrigerators, lamps, fans, hair dryers, computers, everything suddenly gone. But we had flashlights to see around the house at night and battery-powered radios so we could keep up with the rest of the world. But no fans in all the heat.

We did not think we would be without electricity for very long. Besides, a son lived nearby and we could share his air conditioner and lights.

Thoughtful neighbors began running big extension cords across the street so people could get their refrigerators going. Of course, they knew the cables ran in both directions, and they might need help one of these days.

Nothing happened for twenty-four hours. Then a Southern California Edison truck showed up. I talked to the driver, who was surveying the problem. He wanted me to know nothing was going to happen for at least another twenty four hours.

Our son’s power went out. We waited and sweltered. It was almost another twenty-four hours when two trucks showed up, loaded with three transformers. The crew with the truck went to work, removing and replacing all three of them. They were a contract group of no-nonsense linemen. Still it took several hours to remove replace and rewire each of the three, in 105 degree heat. Then we had to wait until a supervisor came along and checked out their work. Finally the OK was given and our electricity was restored, well over two days after the damage occurred.

I thought back over my thirty-five years of living in nice neighborhoods in Southern California and my problems with electric power. Problems seemed to be increasing in severity. My arguments with what I began to call “The Dim Bulb Society” (DBS) had been increasing.

I argued with DBS from the point of some electrical knowledge and with instrumentation. They responded with bureaucratic expressions. At one point I wrote to them, “In 1971 I had an office in Thomas Edison’s first factory in Schenectady, NY. It was built in 1880. In 1880, Thomas Edison knew not to do what you just did.”

And so our differences continued. While their linemen told me what was really going on, I listened to the nonsense from headquarters, spewed by people in air conditioned offices who were far removed from reality. I came to have a lot of respect for the linemen.

I expressed in our newspaper this concern: “If the rise of a few degrees in temperature causes so many problems, what will the Dim Bulb Society do when something really goes wrong?” After all, we are prone to earthquakes and we are at war. There are all sorts of possibilities.

Soon, DBS will begin producing institutional ads proclaiming how wonderful they really are and how dedicated to the customer they are and all that good stuff. But I will not believe them, except in the case of the linemen.

The economics of Power companies is special. As a monopoly, they have no competition. This is a necessary evil in our society. It is important for people to realize that power companies have the need to hide profits. If they do not hide them, they will not get another increase from the public utilities commission. Institutional ads are one way of avoiding profits. So are improved offices and cars for executives. There are all kinds of ways to keep profitability at a low level.

In my novel about the future called Time Out of Joint, I found a way to eliminate power companies. The idea sounds better all the time.

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