Conservationists in some countries take their empty glass bottles, metal cans, old newspapers and junk mail to collection centres for recycling. Some of these well intentioned folk drive the stuff to the centres, pollutantly burning enough fuel to wipe out any potential resource or environmental gain from recycling. Selflessly, they are prepared to help the authorities make communal profits from recycling, and so benefit fiscally fellow citizens who are unencumbered by a comparable sense of responsibility. I both respect and admire the conservationists’ motives.

Green power pricing has become a US phenomenon in recent years. An example is the 17 to 23 percent premium on rates charged by Traverse City Light and Power, Michigan. The residents and businesspeople who have volunteered to pay the extra dollars for their electricity have done so to back a 600 kW wind turbine generator installation. Other examples include high-rated solar power from Sacramento Municipal Utility, California, and from Detroit Edison, near Ann Arbor.

I think that the green ratepayers are even more altruistic than the recycling centre pilgrims: and that their virtuous example is even less likely to be followed by any majority. Ordinary consumers plug into power sockets without knowing or caring very much about what proportions of their juice have fossil, nuclear or renewable origins. If told that some of their supply is dearer because there are wind turbine or solar generators on line, the harder-nosed among them might simply demand diversion of the filtered-out expensive green current to the suckers that want it.

Don your cloak and dagger

A popular call in certain democracies is for more ‘transparency’ of government. Broadly interpreted, that means increased ability to ‘see through’ the wiles of politicians and bureaucrats. People crave greater accountability, and an end to the apparently instinctive secrecy of officialdom.

But openness, candour, disclosure and other components of ‘transparency’ are as scarce in the corporate world. Commercial and industrial organizations can be as secretive (or should one say ‘opaque’?) as any agency of a police state. And the inevitable complement of institutional concealment is institutional espionage.

Industrial secrecy and spying seem to go hand in hand in many countries, including the world’s greatest open market economy, the USA. Take the case of the Bonneville Power Administration in Oregon. The BPA has been warning its employees about the preservation of its secrets. In its staff newspaper, Circuit, it declares that ‘industrial spies target BPA’.

An expert, brought in from the US Department of Energy to alert BPA personnel to infiltrators wearing BPA badges, is quoted in Circuit as saying: "If you don’t guard your information, you are going to be out of business". A BPA risk management officer underlines the message. ‘The top two areas for industrial espionage right now’, he says, ‘are the federal government and the utility market’.

A BPA computer protection manager intimates knowledge of ‘people on site right now that are employees of other utilities’, and presumably seeking to filch precious information. He lists the precautions that fellow employees should take. They should never answer questions – even from their grandmothers – about BPA computers and computer systems. They should ‘challenge’ strangers with offers of help, thus subtly to test the strangers’ bona fides. If they take work home they should shield their papers from others’ gaze and use encryption tools or access cards on laptops. And finally, they should take action, independently or with the aid of security staff, on the JDLR principle: namely, ‘DO something’ in any situation that "Just Doesn’t Look Right".

The risk management officer admits that some colleagues think his department paranoid but he claims it to be merely realistic. ‘BPA is shifting’, he says, ‘from a vanilla plain old government agency to a competitive organization’. Corporations in the marketplace, it seems, have to copy the methods of police states.

Naively, no doubt, I wonder precisely what kinds of information the utilities can possess that would attract such virulent espionage and necessitate such fierce protection. Circuit does not tell me. I suppose that that must be secret too.