I’m sure that every Missouri customer of this company already knows that.  Ameren epitomizes everything that’s wrong when you buy into the “market will fix everything” mantra spouted by the rightwing asshats when it comes energy delivery in this country.

A nasty ice storm has been rolling through Missouri since Saturday.  Here’s my story and status.

I live in a teeny unincorporated town (was incorporated back in the 1920s for maybe 5-8 years) in rural Osage County.  For some reason none of us can figure out, those of us in the “town” have our electricity delivered to us by AmerenUE.  As you already know, Ameren’s brought the level of non-service to an art form.  We have frequent blinks and woe to us if something actually breaks.

Contrast that to another electricity provider who works in the exact same geographic area, deals with the exact same issues and people.  That provider is an electrical co-op, Three Rivers.

Walk 500 yards in any direction and Three Rivers is the electricity provider.  Why are we in “town” so blessed to have craptacular Ameren as our utility company while everybody around us is serviced by Three Rivers?  Our best guess is that back in the day when we here first got electricity, it was only delivered to this “town” (80 people today, maybe 200 a century ago–this is back when we were briefly incorporated) and that everybody “rural” were told to pound sand.  It’s not unlike broadband access in rural America in that the private sector, or even regulated monopolies, will never deliver this service.  Thus, the only way our rural neighbors initially got power was through the establishment of the rural electrical co-op.

That’s the picture in 2007: we are this little desert island of AmerenUE customers surrounded by Three Rivers Electric (the co-op).

In January of this year, we had massive ice storm in Missouri that knocked out power over large parts of the state, St Louis was particularly hard hit.  Since we are at the end of the line, AmerenUE always restores our service last, thus, we went 4 days in February in single digit temperature weather without power.  However, if we drove less than a mile away we were greated with the warm lights and hearths of homes with power.  

Why?  They…the Co-op, We…screwed AmerenUE “customers”.

Here we are in December 07 and our power blew Sunday morning at 6am.  Another ice storm (don’t get me started on global warming being the root cause of this, cuz it is–100 years ago, this would have been a good ole fashioned snow storm but now that the freeze line has moved north so that it pretty much straddles the central part of the state, we’re in the dreaded ice zone) moved in and knocked down power lines all over the place.  We held our breath knowing what was coming.

By 8pm Sunday evening, just like in January, the Three Rivers customers around us had their power restored. We on the other hand?  Still in the dark and cold.  In fact, it took Ameren 24 hours before they even had a single truck at the substation that handles our area.  Three Rivers had crews out that morning.

Now, tell me why two companies in the exact same area, operating under the exact same conditions have totally different track records in restoring service?  Oh yeah, I can tell you why.  One is locally owned and operated and was setup with rural customers in mind, ie., it cares.  On the other hand, Ameren’s track record over the last decade on just about anything to do with customer service and product delivery has, well, sucked.  They don’t care unless it’s to drive up its stock price and squeeze as much profit out of a decaying system serving a captive customer base.

AmerenUE’s reputation for restoring service that’s been knocked out is craptacular on the best of days.  This will be the third major event in two years in which they’ve once again shown their inability to compete with the rural co-ops in restoration of service.  Again, explain to me why two power companies operating side by side so presumably are dealing with the exact same restoration of service issues can have totally different track records?

This little story goes to the heart of why large utility companies have gotten away with corporate murder under a rightward tilt in this country toward “free market” solutions to issues that simply are oranges to the “free market” apples.

I am now 52 hours into the power outage.  In January, it took Ameren almost 90 hours to restore service.  Let’s see if they can do better this time. Of course then we’ll hear how much better they performed this time around.  Not when you can directly compare them to somebody living down the road a ways.

And the really sad thing is that the Missouri Public Service Commission granted this company a $42 million dollar rate increase in June 07.

Clearly that increase isn’t going into servicing customers, building better infrastructure or improving its weather response activities.

Finally, any utility company spokesperson who says “well, if you’re without power, go stay with friends or family that have power.”  Yes, I heard a moron from the Boone County Co-op say that exact thing.  Well, for those of us who don’t have 3 generations of family living within a 10 mile radius, most of whom may or may not have power themselves, or friends because of the highly insular nature of rural Missouri, or might have other considerations like pets or children, such a simplistic “just go stay with somebody” is insulting.  Hey Boone Power guy, why don’t you open up your house to us?  We’ve only got 9 cats, a three legged dog and an elderly mother to take care of.

UPDATE 3:00pm, 11 Dec: For about 24 hours, there had been no additional restoration of services by Ameren in Osage County.  Basically, their “Customers without Power” graph was stuck at just under 30%.  Now, Mrs Grog did report that real honest to goodness Ameren trucks came into our town around noon.  And I’d seen them at the substation at 7am.  But, no power.  And by 3pm on the No Power graph, power outages have gone up again, approx 5-8%.  And this on a day when it’s warmed up here and things are melting.  As of right now, we’ve been without power for 57 hours.

UPDATE 3:45pm, 11 Dec: The outage “spike” is closer to 10% and seems to have hit Ameren’s poor customers in the Chamois area.  I will say one thing for Ameren, their outage map and graph are addictive, in a self-flagellating kind of way.  Good thing I have power at work.

UPDATE 6:30am, 12 Dec: Last night at 6:30pm, after 60-61 hours without power, the magic juice started flowing again.  When I arrived home at 4:30pm, our “town” was swarming with contract crews from North Carolina.  North Carolina?  What does Ameren now do, find the lowest price hired hands they can to come in during emergencies?  Even if this means they come in from the East friggin’ coast?  With gas at $3 a gallon, that stragety’s gonna backfire. Obviously they won’t get any help from the local rural co-ops who will help their fellow co-ops (understandbly) before even looking at working with Ameren.

Anyway, these guys worked hard in miserable weather and got our power back.  And before anybody thinks this anti-Ameren screed is directed at the work crews, please disabuse yourself of that notion.  The friggin company needs more work crews on permanent staff.  Oh wait, that would mean increased overhead and reduced profits.  The downside is that the people in Chamois as of this morning were still without power, as were at least 10K in the greater Jeff City area.

It will be interesting to see if Ameren looks at the two major ice storms to hit its operating area in the same calendar year and determine if they need to change their approach when faced with a probably long term change in weather patterns.  Yunno, things like hiring more people full-time.  Approach tree trimming and “wire threats” in a more systematic fashion.  Who am I kidding, this is Ameren.  They’ll use the cost of this as an excuse to cut staff, trim benefits and then go back to the MPSC and ask for a $200 million rate increase.