Something’s different about our willingness to sacrifice

Something clearly changed between the time of World War II and this past week, when citizens were asked to make a personal sacrifice for the good of everybody.

During the war, citizens responded en mass when told to ration food, gas, rubber, nylons, and what-not. And, human nature being what it is, there was grumbling. But, at the end of the day, lots of folks sucked it up and followed the advice of the president and other authority figures.

To be sure, the fire at a Consumers Energy pumping station last week does not compare in scope to a war, but, for a moment there — in the middle of a “generational” deep-freeze, as Gov. Gretchen Whitmer put it — the citizenry was again called up to take one for the team, to take steps to make sure everyone had some heat, rather than everyone having none.

For those of you in Florida who missed the story, Consumers was this close to unilaterally shutting off the juice for some businesses and homes because, due to an unexpected fire at its most important pumping station, it could not get to the 60 percent of natural gas that was sunk underground.

Rather than use the rolling blackout option that would have left thousands shivering at home, the utility CEO took to Facebook and called for a voluntary mad dash for the thermostat to slice it down to 65 degrees. That was followed by a pitch from the new governor urging the same thing. All of that in the midst of bitter cold temperatures well below zero and even more bone chilling when you factored in the wind chill.

Unlike the response 70 years ago, the cry for help from authority figures was not universally accepted. Some refused to dial down and they weren’t bashful about saying so on social media. The Metro-Times reported “defiance” out there from customers fed up with high utility bills to begin with and Consumers CEO Patti Poppi dragging down a nifty $6.8 million a year.

At last count 10 percent of the customer base, including the automakers and others, complied with the duo requests from the company and governor, while 90 percent ignored it. Yikes — 90 percent.

Progress Michigan, a left-leaning public interest lobby, complained that utilities have not spent enough to beef up the infrastructure. That costs money and might cut into the utility’s bottom line that shareholders watch very closely.

Jumping into the fray, the former GOP chair of the state House Energy Committee, Gary Glenn, asserts that, when the pumping station went from 1.8 billion cubic feet per day to zero, had there been a reliable backup system to click in, the plea for reduced thermostats would have been avoided.

The company did reportedly tap into other storage facilities and purchase gas from the interstate pipeline system, but still requested the usage reductions. Plus, it reports so far it has drilled over $3 billion into updating the system with a study underway that could result in more spending.

Clearly, Mr. Glenn has an axe to grind with his “friends’ at the utility. He was running for a state Senate seat last November and was sitting on a comfortable eight-point lead when Consumers unleashed a series of negative commercials that turned the race around, sending him to the showers with hot water from the utility.

With that in mind, the former lawmaker reports that, instead of spending $43 million on political commercials, the highest amount in the nation for a utility, he says, Consumers should have used that money to beef up a fail-safe redundant system.

Coincidently the state Public Service Commission admonished the utility for spending that pile of cash on politics and ordered it not to do it again for two years, even though the company says it came from stockholders, not ratepayers.

Mr. Glenn contends that, indirectly, it did come from the customers.

Whitmer has ordered the PSC to study all this with the objective of avoiding another near-catastrophe in the middle of winter. The report, however, won’t be complete until next fall, according to the PSC chairperson. That means, if there are remedies out there, they may not be implemented for another eight or nine months and, since spring is not around the corner, could something like this happen again?

Keep your gloves on and your fingers crossed.