Surcharge: A little history lesson

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Not to be confused with the current "global warming" caused drought, California underwent another severe drought back in the 1970s. At that time, "global cooling" was said to be the culprit. Nevertheless, many of the same water conservation practices used today materialized then.

The first item to go was water on tables in restaurants. This was probably more popular with servers than anybody else, but it made every diner a contributor to the cause. You could still order water if you were so inclined, but leave at your own risk if you failed to drain your glass. Placing a brick in the tank behind your toilet was another imaginative innovation. Curbside car washing was banned in many places. Lawn watering was either banned or restricted. Pressure reducing showerheads came into being. And horror of horrors, some jurisdictions even banned the filling of swimming pools. The list goes on, but the results were that Californians did in fact reduce water consumption and survive.

The rub came as water meter gauges slowed and the billing numbers went down accordingly. Lower billings stretched water providers' budgets and they began to look around for more money. They didn't look far; they simply began to raise rates and enact surcharges. Of course, the public went up in arms. "What do you mean, charging us more money for less water when we are suffering trying to do the right thing and conserve," became the cry. The battle was on. Eventually, the rains came and life returned to as normal as it gets down there.

Now it seems that Avista has lined up at the old surcharge-feeding trough and is asking the Idaho Public Utilities Commission to authorize it to charge customers a "fixed cost adjustment." Where did that come from?

In the mid-1950s, General Electric and Westinghouse decided to cosponsor a multi-million dollar campaign to promote the sales of electric appliances and the benefits of electric power. Launched in 1956, they called it the "Live Better Electrically" program. The National Electric Manufacturers Association soon joined them with its "Medallion Homes" campaign in 1957. A variety of magazine and newspaper ads, as well as TV spots and even radio jingles promoted the two programs. Ronald Reagan became their main spokesman.

To earn an LBE Medallion emblem, a house had to be solely sourced with electricity for heat, light, and power. It had to have an electric stove and refrigerator in the kitchen and a number of other electric appliances throughout. A full 150-ampere service and a specified number of outlets and switches per linear foot of wall space were also required. And finally, LBE Medallion Homes had high standards for built-in illumination. The homes that met LBE Medallion standards were marked with a 3-inch brass plaque, or Gold Medallion, near the front entry.

By all accounts, the LBE Medallion campaign was a huge success. Estimates show that about a million all-electric homes were built through the 1970s.

During this time, utility companies were rushing to meet increased demand for electricity in postwar America. However, as more power plants came on line, the cost of electricity decreased. To increase company profits, programs like the one described above were designed to encourage homeowners to consume more power. Consumption was considered a good thing. This philosophy spilled over into the entire American economy. The nation experienced continual growth and near full employment during those years.

For a variety of reasons, that has all changed now. Now instead of expanding, the nation seems to be contracting. According to Avista, increased energy efficiency has caused a decline in kilowatt usage in North Idaho. EPA green emblems have replaced Gold Medallions. And utilities are asking for surcharges designed to, in Avista's words, "...break the link between a utilities revenues and a consumer's energy usage." In other words, they want you to pay for their equipment and then charge you for the juice it produces as well. Or as an AARP report put it, "The proliferation of additional fees and surcharges generally shifts risks away from utility investors and onto consumers."

Oddly enough, Avista is way behind our local Kootenai Electric Cooperative in that regard. KEC has been charging what they call a "Service Availability Fee" for quite some time. Last month's surcharge on my household's bill was $19.50, almost a quarter of the total bill. Now understand, KEC is a member owned co-op. As a member, I am a stockholder, an investor. How does that work? Does that mean that when I pay KEC (me) a $19.50 surcharge, I am shifting risks away from me to me? Go figure.

Bob LaRue is a resident of Hauser.

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