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Gore Vidal Sounds Off on Solar Power Caper

Note to public utility companies: Do not cross Gore Vidal. A week after representatives from the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power came to his Hollywood Hills home to inspect (and then shut down) his newly installed solar power system, Vidal is still “on the grid,” unable to use solar until the system is fully re-inspected. As his fans would expect, the puissant author and tough customer has let fly with some strong words about the utility company, the state of California and the state of the country at large.

Although the DWP insists that the shutdown was a safety-related standard procedure according to their protocol, and that there were some issues with the way in which his solar system was set up and activated, Vidal questions the use of said protocol and the motives behind it. Simply put, he tells Truthdig’s Associate Editor Kasia Anderson, “[utility companies] have no intention for anyone to use solar power so long as there’s a drop of oil anywhere in the world.”

Kasia Anderson: Let’s just catch up here in terms of where things stand at this point in the saga. …

Gore Vidal: Well, in the saga of light and day and the dark of the moon … exactly a year ago, there was a total blackout. I live in the Hollywood Hills, and the area around [my street] and other streets that go up from down below from the flats to the high mountaintop to help people cross over to the Valley — this is a street that people like to take to get from Hollywood, let’s say to San Fernando Valley, Burbank, and so on. That said, to my astonishment, I was, like everybody else, on the grid; I never questioned it, never thought about it. Next thing I know, for eight days we are without any power of any kind in the house, and some genius somewhere in the municipal divisions had managed to turn my telephone off. So, I had no telephone, no light, no nothing, and was forced, at enormous expense, to move with my godson, who is an expert — he’s part of the Green Party in France, where he lives, and he is not an American — I hope there was no resentment over that, but he was very helpful in just setting this thing up.

A lot of people fled. I was one of them. For one thing, I was not about to have a stroke; there was no air conditioning or anything else. So, I went to a hotel and stayed there at a huge expense for 10 days, maybe longer. And every day they’d say, “Oh yes, we’re getting closer,” and, “Well, your buildings are too old!” Well, this house was built in the ’20s; that’s quite true. But why not tell me, the buyer of the house, when I bought it? Did anybody from Power and Water come by to say, “Well, you’d better check on such and such?” No, they didn’t. We did check on everything to make sure everything was OK. And so many people who had rented this house over many years had cheated everybody. We had one couple — he declared bankruptcy, she wisely did not, and she ended by owing us $45,000 in rent — doing nothing about light, anything else. I dare give no more examples of her bad citizenship, because the [Los Angeles Department of Water and Power] would immediately say, “She did it! She did it!” You know, they’re looking to blame somebody for the mess they made over here. The least they could do is transfer the fault elsewhere — well, they can’t. This was arbitrarily their own mess.

So in due course, my godson the Green Party man had worked out how simple it would be, and he got hold of some very nice solar people out here, so we did everything by the book to install, just to transfer over from the grid, which uses up what’s left of the oil in the world, and simultaneously we went to work to collect as much sunlight as we could. We didn’t think there was a war against it. I should have known better — this is America! — that anybody could have grabbed this, whether it be a municipal department who could claim it was under them, and you must clear everything with them … well, that’s power! That’s real power. And it’s not power in the sense we like to think of it, which is power for the people who pay for … power! And should get it in return and not have it taken away from them on some spurious thing: “Well, you didn’t clear; we have eight members of the board, and you have to clear it with all eight and you didn’t.”

And so we tried to, because we were told, after the initial installation had been made, that we must apply for inspection from the [DWP], which has invented a lot of rules which don’t exist anywhere in the Constitution, in the state of California’s laws, in any rulings by the state Assembly. The whole government has been thrown out by this one little bureau, sitting — cowering — over there in this great big building, and legislating our water, our power. “We have our rulings,” they say. Well, I’m sure you have; I’m sure you make 20 a day! And not necessarily the rulings of the citizens of the state of California. We’re not held by your rulings. We can be advised by them. We can be protected by them, and we know that’s what you care the most about: the well-being of the citizens of the state. You’re famous all over the world! California cares. The municipality of California cares!

Actually, nobody cares about anything except keeping total control and making sure that people, outsiders (even though I’ve been an insider in this state since 1929), are not going to get away with anything. They’re not going to be independent of the grid. The grid is holy. It drinks water desperately, like somebody starving in Death Valley. And, I shouldn’t think we were to be taken seriously on an important matter like this, which involves everybody! Who owns the sun? Well, I don’t think a little department strung up in this vast bureaucratic maze of so many little departments (and big departments) has any particular rights.

Anderson: So, just so that I understand the process, … the contractor and your godson were aware of the procedures from the beginning and knew the DWP’s rules and [were] doing all the paperwork. As far as you knew, at the point of installation, you were good to go.

Vidal: Oh yes. More than good to go; people had been walked through it to see whether everything was correct and so on. No complaints. I don’t have affidavits, but I probably could collect them.

Anderson: And their initial complaint happened after they were finally made aware, last week, that it was installed and there hadn’t been an inspection. And their claim at that point was that it had been incorrectly and without permit … [installed]?

Vidal: My first prediction — I like to think of myself as an authority on bureaucracy — would be that it was improperly installed. They didn’t know one wire from the other, the inspectors who came, and that’s why they made such a mess. They tore out my elevator, which gets me up from the downstairs part — I’m a gimp — and that was an unpleasant thing to do, because I woke up the next morning ready to go downstairs, and the machine wasn’t working; they had somehow ripped out the insides of it. I have some electrical stuff in the bathroom, which I need, and they had torn that out! This is a clean sweep! And they were not going to admit it. So, I started to call up the solar people, and they said, well, this isn’t solar that you’re going on, and I said, well, it basically is. They’ve torn everything up, and it’s because it’s “incorrectly done.” None of the people they sent over to examine it knew how it worked. So, they just went merrily around ripping wires out of the ground and pulling them out of the walls, without being invited in. It was also invasion of privacy.

And it was very daring, I thought. If we lived in a country of law, I’d have known exactly what to do: I’d bring charges. But we don’t. This is a country of cronies! “Heck of a job, Brownie!” I should have screamed from the housetops. “Heck of a job!”

The worse the work is, the more highly it’s celebrated, and there’s a bit of skimming going on all the time, too. Otherwise, why are there so many of these little departments, you know? Making rules by which the public must live — but they don’t have to! That is really strange.

Anderson: So you’re unable to fully get off the grid, and you’ll always be in some way beholden to the department. …

Vidal: Oh, we’re totally [on the grid] now. We were totally off it, for a couple of weeks. By the time they finished muddling around and pulling wires out and so on, they shoved us right back on where they wanted us! Now they can just switch it off whenever they please. And apparently they can get into the basement here whenever they please to make sure that they’ve evaded such-and-such a switch.

Anderson: And they don’t call ahead to say they’re going to need to come in?

Vidal: Well, they did at first, and I said, “All the dials that you need are on the outside of the house! You don’t need to come inside!” They always want to get down into the basement, because that’s where they’re cheating … oh, we can tell a mile away. These are real dum-dums.

Anderson: So, after your initial complaints, [DWP representatives] came [on Tuesday]. …

Vidal: Tuesday, and by the time I got up, they’d turned off everything, all the lights. “Because, you see, we’ve got to turn off the solar panels before we can get to the — do you understand that? We’ve got to turn those off!” I said, “Why? They’re working terribly well!” Well, there was no direct answer to that, except they wanted to! And, (a) it’s infantile, their approach, and (b) it’s very, you know, Third Reich!

Anderson: I was told by another solar company provider that they don’t need to necessarily come over to inspect nor to turn anything off in order to inspect.

Vidal: Well, the fact that they know it’s on and working should be enough. They can tell that from their dials.

Anderson: So, where did they leave it after you had the summit meeting of different representatives on Tuesday?

[Vidal’s assistant] Daren Simkin: They went through all of the different requirements, and it apparently turned out that the solar was not installed exactly according to their requirements. It was installed as efficiently as possible, which made sense given the structure of the house and the efficiency of the solar, but it didn’t completely comply with what they required. So, the solar guy, William, who’s the CEO of the [solar] company, had to rewire … and that was the end of it. So, now they’re currently working on the second stage of inspections.

Anderson: [The solar company CEO] being somebody who’s done a lot of these before — he didn’t anticipate this complaint by them [the DWP]?

Vidal: He was astonished. He didn’t expect any of this.

Simkin: The idea is it doesn’t make sense electrically for them to rewire it this way. Which begs the question: What does the department have to do with this? Why should they make these rules that don’t make sense across the board?

Anderson: Does it enable the DWP to use any excess solar energy in a better fashion?

Simkin: I think it just complies with their rules — that’s it.

Vidal: Well, I think that they make their rules backwards, you know. If there’s a situation, they say, “That’s our rule, you see, and you’ve gone against our rule! And we can’t permit that, because this is for your protection and the protection of every good American!” So we get a lot of nonsense.

Anderson: And their explanation was that it had to do with personal safety … ?

Vidal: We’re so grateful for their attentions! They’re so good at personal safety in this state, you know. Just go along the highways — you’ll see how much they care.

Simkin: And someone has to recognize the conflict of interest here. Because as a government division, I suppose they have the right to protect the safety of citizens.

Vidal: Or pretend that they are, which is what they’re doing. They don’t give a damn!
Simkin: But at the same time, when they’re looking over the solar, if a citizen is buying solar, they’re taking their business away from the department. The department’s losing money. Why would the department want to help someone take their business elsewhere? …

Vidal: We went through all the stages that you’re supposed to go through. They had been informed. And we opened the place for them in April to come and fulfill one of their extraordinary rules, and they never came, nor did they say they weren’t coming. They just wasted our time, and then they made a second date, I think, and that was that. By then, we were up and going.

Anderson: So, essentially, “you’re never able to be fully off the grid” is the moral of this story.

Vidal: That is what they want; that is what they’ve achieved. I want to turn it around. … I mean, just ticking them off is not going to do it! We’ve got to prove the force majeure and that is the sun!

Anderson: If you have a boat and you want to run a solar panel on it, I gather that no inspection is required.

Vidal: Yes, and a boat can blow up in a harbor and take the harbor with it, too.

Anderson: Is there any reason why [the department’s] incentive program [for installing solar power] could be of any use to you as a household? I mean, would they cover for you if a tree fell on your solar panel?

Vidal: Oh, I’m sure they would not. They would drop a match after that.

Simkin: The incentive is sizable at this point. It’s getting smaller.

Vidal: It was big.

Anderson: I believe I read that 40 percent is about the standard incentive.

Vidal: I think that something may be made out of it that I’m the only non-greedy person in this place — in this community — who is not trying to grab something for nothing: “Boy, I really took them!” I’m just counter their culture, and I loathe their culture.

Anderson: And it would seem like, at times like this, in the summer, when there is a huge strain put on the system for air conditioning and so forth, that it would be useful for some of the households to not be adding to that strain.

Vidal: Well, as I said, I thought this was a gift from me to the community, by removing myself from the grid.

Simkin: Related to that, I mean, if there was a shortage of oil, oil companies wouldn’t be excited about electric car companies rising up — they’d raise the price of oil. This is how they exert control.

Anderson: And on top of the incentive for the installation, is there some tax write-off?

Vidal: There’s something vague, I remember.

Simkin: It seems like the only motivations that the department has [for promoting solar] are the governor’s declared intentions to get so many people on solar by 2010-2011. There’s that … and goodwill to protect the environment, which runs counter to the rules of capitalism.

Anderson: The bottom line seems to be that the whole idea of harnessing the sun comes with red tape.

Simkin: If all goes well, the [re-]inspection process is supposed to take two weeks. The original papers were put in April 20th.

Vidal: They won’t come. And then they’ll stop coming altogether … every time they don’t come, they say they’re delaying, you know?

Simkin: And we’re not supposed to use the solar until it’s been inspected.

Vidal: By what rule? We can take that one to court! People have been using solar ever since the first person figured out how to work it to heat the pool! Everyone’s been heating their pool [using solar] forever, and nobody’s come by to inspect it. …

Anderson: At this point, you’re fully back on the grid.

Vidal: Yep, to their delight. They don’t want anything to change now.

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