Monday, January 15, 2018

SMART METERS MEASURE UP

The Illinois Commerce Commission approved Commonwealth Edison's advanced metering infrastructure plan and ordered the utility to install smart meters for all its customers. The smart meter measures a customer's electricity usage and wirelessly sends the information to the utility. Thus, a smart meter eliminates the necessity for a meter reader to come to the premises to read the meter. The Commission also approved an additional monthly charge of $21.53 to customers who refuse to permit installation of a smart meter on their premises. The additional charge is cost-based,including the cost of having a meter reader visiting premises to read a non-smart meter.

A customer refused to permit installation of a smart meter and also refused to pay the smart meter refusal charge. The customer filed a complaint with the Commission challenging the legality of the charge. After the Commission dismissed the complaint, the customer appealed the decision to the Appellate Court.*

On appeal, the question before the Court was whether a customer can refuse installation of a smart meter without paying the refusal charge. The customer argued that the Commission denied due process because it dismissed the complaint without holding an evidentiary hearing. The Court rejected this argument, indicating that a hearing does not need to be held in every situation of dismissal. It concluded that the customer's complaint before the Commission raised only legal issues, not factual issues, and that the legal issues were fully briefed.

The Court also held that there was no violation of state law. It stated that a smart meter simply is an upgrade replacement of an old meter. In addition, the refusal charge is a reimbursement of the additional cost for a manual meter read, not an additional metering fee. Moreover, the refusal charge was in a tariff approved by the Commission, and thereby, was a law.

The customer also asserted that the refusal charge violated federal law because there was no federal law mandating smart meters. The Court found no conflict with federal law.

Accordingly, the Court affirmed the Commission's decision rejecting the challenge to the smart meter refusal charge.

Although this decision involves an electric utility, it can be instructive for water utilities. For investor-owned utilities, it demonstrates the importance of prior approval by the regulatory agency for innovations such as smart meters or other infrastructure upgrades. For all types of water utilities, the issues can be relevant. For example, technology innovations may suggest replacement of conventional meters with some form of "smart" water meter. Access to change meters may come into question. Further, a refusal charge may be proposed in the event a customer declines to permit a meter change. Such a charge, it would seem, must be justified based on cost factors.

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*Wade v. Illinois Commerce Commission,
2017 IL. App (1st) 171230

© Daniel J. Kucera 2018

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

RESOLVING NEW YEAR RESOLUTIONS

It is a New Year! Your favorite sport team's season now is over, with its dismal losing record. The celebratory parties are over, possibly leaving sobering concerns about one's behavior at them. It is time to confront 2018. As T.S. Eliot put it, "For last year's words belong to last year's language and next year's words await another voice."

Traditionally, people make resolutions at the first of a new year to improve behavior or to set goals for the coming twelve months. According to G.K. Chesterton, "Unless a particular man made New Year resolutions, he would make no resolutions. Unless a man starts afresh about things he will certainly do nothing effective."

The problem is that, while it may be easy to make New Year resolutions, it seems downright impossible to actually keep or even to implement them. Easy to make, easy to break. So this year I have decided that it is far more realistic to make resolutions for other people rather than for myself. This could offer joy to all concerned. As Tennyson said, "Hope smiles from the threshold of the year to come, whispering 'It will be happier.'"

I offer to all the following four resolutions concerning water:

RESOLUTION 1: To drink more water. Mark twain said "Water, taken in moderation, cannot hurt anybody." On a more positive note, Thoreau uttered "Water is the only drink for a wise man."

RESOLUTION 2: To conserve water by using less when circumstances permit.

RESOLUTION 3: To avoid wasting water, for example from such causes as leaking faucets, spigots and toilets, and the like.

RESOLUTION 4: To avoid flushing things into drains and toilets that could be detrimental to the wastewater system.

The fact is that these resolutions, and all other possible resolutions in general, in reality simply are a matter of common sense. Perhaps the most important resolution that anyone could make is to resolve to use one's own common sense. De Vinci stated "Iron rusts from disuse; water loses its purity from stagnation...even so does inaction sap the vigor of the mind." Or, as Tennyson exclaimed, "Ring out the false, ring in the true."


© Daniel J. Kucera 2018

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

WHY IS THERE A WATER UTILITY INFRASTRUCTURE CONCERN?

Recently, many have asserted that water utilities in the United States are facing costs in the billions of dollars to replace aging infrastructure. Assuming this is true, why is this?

Historically, many water utilities--particularly municipally-owned ones--have failed to set their rates regularly to produce revenue sufficient to recover the full costs of service. One explanation for this is system owners are hesitant to raise rates for fear of backlash from customers who are perceived as unwilling to pay for increased rates.

One of the important costs of service results from the necessity to repair and replace infrastructure from time to time and to fund reserves to pay for such work. Funding of such reserves is from revenue produced from rates. If rates are set to recover only operating costs, reserves will become unfunded and infrastructure issues will be deferred or disregarded. While a utility could incur debt, such as through a bond issue, to pay for plant replacement, the impact of debt service can have an unwelcome effect on rates.

Asset management begins with acknowledgement that facilities must be repaired, replaced and upgraded from time to time. That acknowledgement logically should arise with adequate and detailed records of assets, costs, depreciation, useful lives and condition reports. Water utilities, particularly municipally-owned ones, commonly acquired water plant from developer contributions in aid of construction at no cost to the municipal system. At some point in time, such plant must be replaced. If provision has not been made for depreciation or funding of replacement reserves, an infrastructure concern likely will arise.

The conclusion, it would seem, is that neither a utility nor its customers will benefit when rates sufficient to recover all costs of service, including funding of reserves, are deferred or when asset management is not adequate. The "catch-up" effect that can result when an infrastructure failure occurs, or when the system becomes inadequate to maintain quality of service, can prove a lot more costly than any perceived benefit from avoidance of timely rate adjustments.


© Daniel J. Kucera 2017

Saturday, November 18, 2017

THANKSGIVING: WHO SHOULD WE THANK?

Thanksgiving Day is more than falling asleep before a television set blaring boring, non-competitive football games, after over-eating
turkey and fixings. Rather, as the name implies, it is a day designated to give thanks. For what, and to whom, are we to give thanks?

Recently, I found myself shuffling through foaming accumulations on a bookshelf. The piles of stuff cried for attention. In them, I excavated a letter that my cousin wrote on December 12, 1944 to my parents. He was 20 years old and a soldier in Patton's "blood and guts" Third Army. He was a forward spotter for artillery in the Battle of the Bulge, which was characterized by hard fighting and hard weather.

My cousin wrote, in part: "Over here we had quite a nice Thanksgiving dinner. The turkey sure tasted good and also the chocolate cake we had. That sure is a promise to spend next Thanksgiving with you, if it is at all possible. Will be sure to have Aunt Mil make some good dumplings though! That's one thing I haven't had over here...at times it's not peaches and cream."

Obviously, and to be expected, his thoughts and unexpressed thankfulness were on the homefront. More broadly, it has been said that Bing Crosby's White Christmas was the most popular song with U.S. troops in World War II because it reminded them so much of home and what they were fighting for.

So, who should we thank on Thanksgiving Day? Should we thank the presidents on Mt. Rushmore who stood and still stand for America?
Should we thank all those in our military who stood for, and still stand for, America? Should we thank all the farmers and ranchers who have produced all the food that nourishes us every day? Should we thank all who have prepared, cooked and served that food? Should we thank all of our family and all of our friends?

All of the above-all that we ever have received, all that we now have and all that we will ever receive-comes from one person. Thank God!


© Daniel J. Kucera 2017

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

IDOLS

We are a country of idols. They can be movie stars, singers, political leaders, military heroes, etc. We embrace idols when they are living and erect statues of them to idolize when they are not. And, because idolatry can be fickle, we tear down statues when we cease to idolize them.

At a rest stop along Interstate 90 near Chamberlain, South Dakota, on a high, windswept bluff saluting the Missouri River, a huge metal statue of Sacagawea towers over all. The Shoshone Indian, of course, made a significant and probably indispensable contribution to the success of the Lewis and Clark Corps of Discovery exploration up the River. The voyage sought to establish, in effect, an interstate highway of rivers to the Pacific Ocean. In point of fact, the Missouri River became an interstate highway between Ft. Benton, Montana and St. Louis, Missouri initially because of the fur trade. So, perhaps the location of this Sacagawea statue along a concrete interstate highway is particularly poignant.

Interestingly, there are at least 22 other statues of Sacagawea in 11 states (Montana, Missouri, Wyoming, Idaho, Washington, Oregon, North Dakota, South Dakota, Virginia, Texas and Illinois). One may wonder why another statute of the woman should be erected now at this rest stop.

It should come as no surprise that today many Indian reservations are located on lands that have limited agricultural suitability and limited water resources. It also should come as no surprise that many of these reservations suffer from prevalent high unemployment, low incomes, inadequate housing and other issues. One could question whether one more statue of Sacagawea satisfies any predominant need of any sort.

Indeed, there may be a certain irony here. Notice, in the above photo, Sacagawea is not looking over the Missouri River, which was the subject of her exploits. Instead, she is facing the rest stop building and its rest rooms, keeping a watchful eye on all who enter to use its facilities. Perhaps this statue is an idle idol.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

ARE MICROBES CAUSING GLOBAL WARMING?

A report states that research suggests algae growing on the Alaska Harding Icefield is causing about one-sixth (17%) of the glacial snow melt there.* As the microbes grow, they turn the snow a crimson color. This coloring increases the amount of sunlight the snow absorbs, causing an increase in melting.

Glaciers contain nutrients that can encourage algal growth. When algal growth causes faster snow melt, that melting can, in turn, accelerate more algal growth resulting in even more melting. Researchers also are studying the Greenland ice sheet for similar findings.

According to the report, the "algal effect" on glacial snow melt should be taken into account in so-called climate change simulations. In other words, snow melt cannot be assumed to be due entirely to higher temperatures. One wonders what other natural phenomena may be increasing global temperatures but may not be considered in predictions of climate change. For example, some have asserted that cow flatulence is a significant contributor to warming.

It is said that "a rolling stone gathers no moss." In the fast moving rolling stone of climate change assertions, have we really looked for moss or do we merely assume that there is none?

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*Hamers, "Algae Speed Up Melting of
Glacial Snow," Science News,
October 14, 2017, p.10

© Daniel J. Kucera 2017

Saturday, October 21, 2017

RAINMAKING: FOOLING MOTHER NATURE?

One of the classic scenes in Hitchock's movie North By Northwest has Cary Grant nervously standing in bleak open farmland. Another man, a stranger waiting for a bus, appears and exclaims something like "that's funny--that crop duster airplane is spraying where there are no crops!"

Much of the upper Great Plains has experienced severe drought conditions this summer, causing harsh impacts on farming and ranching. North Dakota has had a cloud seeding program for several decades. Airplanes spray particles of silver iodide and dry ice into clouds to cause water droplets to become ice crystals which can fall as rain and small hail.

Much like the crop duster spraying barren ground, it appears that some are questioning the success of cloud seeding. A recent published article has reported that some farmers believe that cloud seeding actually may be making drought conditions worse.* They have referenced alleged situations of clouds moving away after seeding, resulting in less rainfall in cloud seeded areas.

However, the article cites studies showing that cloud seeding does, in fact, produce more rainfall. The difficulty is that evidence one way or the other seems to be anecdotal. It simply is near impossible to objectively measure how much more rain fell as a result of cloud seeding compared with how much rain would have fallen without it. Also complicating the picture is the fact that it is hard to generalize because no two cloud systems are identical.

So, even if every cloud has a silver lining, it may not be a wet one.

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*Kolpack,"In Parched North Dakota,Cloud-
Seeding Irks Some Farmers," Rapid City
Journal, September 25, 2017, p. A3

© Daniel J. Kucera 2017