Speed Reads


John Oliver explains electric utilities, why they're charging you so much, and why they hate solar

"You probably don't give too much thought to your local electric utility, but if you do, it might be because they're charging exorbitant rates for a basic human necessity," John Oliver said on Sunday's Last Week Tonight. "And high bills are just the beginning of the problems here, because utilities are also exceptionally prone to scandal. In fact, just google your utility company right now and the word 'scandal,' and chances are they've gotten into some major trouble. It's basically like googling your local Jimmy John's and e. coli, or the name of your favorite teacher from high school and Jan. 6 — you're not going to like the results that you find."

This episode is "about the incredible amount of power that we give to utilities, how weakly they can be regulated, and the damage this can do," Oliver said. "And let's start with the single most important thing to know about utility companies, which is that for most of us, they're actually the only game in town."

Utility monopolies have profit incentives to spend big on new projects, and they can also "deliberately stifle innovation that might make power cheaper or be a net benefit to society," Oliver said. For example, "people putting up solar panels and generating their own electricity threatens the anti-competitive structure of a utility's monopoly, so they're obviously gonna try and step in and block it." He gave one example from North Carolina, plus several examples of why public utility commissions fail to rein in these companies.

"To recap, our utility system largely consists of for-profit companies with monopolies over an essential service, building as much s--t as they possibly can so they can pass the cost along to you on your electric bill," Oliver said. "Look, clearly this isn't a system where you, the customer, are going to be prioritized. If anything, the model only makes sense if the company's shareholders are viewed as the customer and your bills are the product." He demonstrated his point with some deadly humor.