Monopoly Utilities

Electric Company Water Works

Power grids and water supplies are important aspects of the nation’s infrastructure. Along with roads, sewers, and telecommunications, they help provide the necessary services and facilities for a society to function. Unfortunately for Bristolians, unlike these other elements of our infrastructure, which are publicly owned or allow for private competition, we have single entities supplying our electricity and water — National Grid and The Bristol County Water Authority — that have both become monopolies.

Advance token to the nearest utility

Rhode Island is in an ideal position to help lead the country in a green energy revolution. We have the wind (thanks to our beautiful coastlines). We have the people to fill the jobs (thanks to our ugly unemployment numbers). And, at the local level, we even have the political will (thanks to our many passionate community activists). But there’s still one thing standing in the way: monopoly money.

With their stranglehold on the market, National Grid has plenty of dough to lobby the state’s Public Utilities Commission to do their bidding. As a result, they have been successful in setting the buyback rate of excess energy from wind turbines at only 3 cents per KW, a full 7 cents less than the reimbursments of other renewable sources. They were also able to reinterpret the word “account” in legislation on how to credit these buybacks on a turbine owner’s electric bills. Rather than applying credit to all of the accounts under the owner’s name (a.k.a. “virtual net metering”), which is actually what lawmakers intended, buybacks can be credited to no more than five accounts. Considering the owners of the state’s only two existing turbines, Portsmouth Abbey and the Town of Portsmouth, each have dozens of National Grid accounts, this narrow interpretation is a huge blow and could very well discourage other groups from considering wind power.

However, as obstructive as National Grid is to regional progress, the Bristol County Water Authority (BCWA) may be worse.  The steadily increasing water bills over the years have likely met with disgust from residents, who use the least amount of water per capita in RI yet now pay the highest rates in the state, but that disgust has certainly not been accompanied by improved services. An aging pipeline system and an insufficient number of water towers, most of which are rotting into rusty relics, do little to suggest otherwise.

So where’s all this money going? Well, one thing’s for sure, a good chunk of it is going to the Authority’s employees and corporate officers. Yes, that’s right, despite calling itself a “public agency” and being listed alongside the numerous volunteer boards on the Town of Bristol’s website, the BCWA is run more like a private business than a public commission. It’s only natural then that their officers would want to do whatever they can to maximize profits — even if it means inadequately testing our drinking water for contaminants.

In March of 2008, the BCWA was part of a nation-wide investigative study released by the Associated Press that examined the types of drugs found in U.S. water supplies. And the results were shocking: Half of the water utilities in the report (including the BCWA) do not test for pharmaceuticals, while those that do found trace amounts of medications like anti-epileptics, sex hormones, mood stabilizers, antibiotics and steroids — worrying scientists about the long-term health and environmental effects on the millions of people who inadvertently consume such chemicals each and every day.

But the BCWA isn’t worried. Not about “meaningless” issues like water quality at least. No, their sole concern of late seems to be on growing their monopoly and trampling anyone who dares get in the way. In February of this year, board member John Saviano was ousted for speaking out against the latest pricy labor contract approved by the BCWA, which of course will inevitably lead to another rate hike. While nobody should lose much sleep over someone who helped oversee the Authority during the past twenty years, his removal should be viewed as a measure of the lengths a monopoly will go to maintain its dominance.

Community Chest

The Bristol Wind Power group is pushing for the idea of a consortium of East Bay towns to build a series of turbines, which will pay for most, if not all, of the municipal electricity use in the area. But this plan won’t go far without passage of the virtual net metering provision. Find your state reps and urge them to support H5907.

Water privatization, meanwhile, is a growing trend which stretches far beyond county lines. Watch the Democracy Now! interview with water rights activist Maude Barlow and learn more about the global movement to turn our water supplies into corporate commodities.

Do not pass GO

The best way to resolve problems with natural monopolies is to make them public. Bristol must take back its rights to energy and water from the greedy hands of National Grid and the Bristol County Water Authority even if that means invoking eminent domain on our power lines and pipelines. It’s high time we tell Rich Uncle Pennybags to quit playing games with our infrastructure.

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