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March 1, 2003
California's power problems should make us all realize that we can't take electric power for granted. Consumers take dependable electric power for granted

California's power problems should make us all realize that we can't take electric power for granted.

Consumers take dependable electric power for granted in the United States. When they turn on a faucet, they expect a steady stream of clean water. They don't give a second thought to the massive infrastructure required to bring every last drop of that water to their home — the water purification plants that make that water fit to drink, or the mind-boggling network of pipes and pumping stations necessary to speed that precious liquid on its way.

Consumers also expect electricity to always be there when they want it. When they flip a switch, the lights are supposed to go on. Period. They don't worry about how that power gets to their homes — the zillions of electrons flowing from generating stations through high-voltage transmission lines, transformers, power cable, load centers and all the other products in the electrical distribution system — unless they are suddenly without it.

Even in the electrical construction industry, where everyone is connected in some fashion to the installation of safe, dependable power systems, I bet many of us don't always give the miracle of electric power the respect it's due.

I don't think as many consumers will make this mistake in the future because of the problems that California is having with utility deregulation. Because the state doesn't have enough generating capacity within its own borders, utilities have to import power from other states, and the deregulated prices they have had to pay are exorbitant.

The mandatory cuts that utilities have demanded of California residents and businesses in their power usage and rolling blackouts that they have imposed are hammering home the message in the Golden State that we can't take power for granted. As summer approaches and air conditioning adds to these power demands, California's power crisis will only worsen, and it will have a more immediate impact on consumers.

Consumers see these blackouts and brownouts as a major annoyance, but the outages have an even more serious dollars-and-cents effect on manufacturing businesses that have had to interrupt their production runs, either voluntarily or involuntarily, as well as on California's economy. California's manufacturing base, particularly in aerospace and high tech, makes a huge contribution to the overall U.S. economy. It probably wouldn't be an overstatement to say that California's power problems and their impact on the state's industrial base have in some part contributed to the softening U.S. economic scene.

The long-term impact of the power shortages could cut even deeper. When businesses decide to build new factories, a dependable source of electric power is obviously a key factor. If California can't provide that, businesses may look elsewhere to expand. Combined with growing quality-of-life concerns such as the astronomical cost of living in many areas of California, suburban sprawl, and the resulting traffic and long commutes, the state's role as one of the driving engines of the U.S. economy may not always be in the future what it has been in the past.

While it's tough to find a silver lining in this scenario, the news for the Golden State's electrical contracting community isn't all bad. California will have to build more power plants, and that should help out electrical distributors who have a niche in utility construction. The state's power problems are also already creating renewed interest from the demand side for more energy-efficient electrical systems and alternative sources of power such as fuel cells, wind energy and photovoltaics. Electrical distributors who position themselves as knowledgeable sources of supply for electrical contractors involved in the installation or retrofit of these systems will profit from their efforts.

It's tough to say whether the problems that California is having with the deregulation of its electric utilities will also occur in other states now involved with utility regulation. Hopefully, they will learn from what's happening in California and make the necessary changes to their regulatory processes. As consumers and as companies in the electrical industry, we can all learn from the Golden State's power woes and not take electric power for granted.

About the Author

Jim Lucy | Editor-in-Chief of Electrical Wholesaling and Electrical Marketing

Jim Lucy has been wandering through the electrical market for more than 40 years, most of the time as an editor for Electrical Wholesaling and Electrical Marketing newsletter, and as a contributing writer for EC&M magazine During that time he and the editorial team for the publications have won numerous national awards for their coverage of the electrical business. He showed an early interest in electricity, when as a youth he had an idea for a hot dog cooker. Unfortunately, the first crude prototype malfunctioned and the arc nearly blew him out of his parents' basement.

Before becoming an editor for Electrical Wholesaling  and Electrical Marketing, he earned a BA degree in journalism and a MA in communications from Glassboro State College, Glassboro, NJ., which is formerly best known as the site of the 1967 summit meeting between President Lyndon Johnson and Russian Premier Aleksei Nikolayevich Kosygin, and now best known as the New Jersey state college that changed its name in 1992 to Rowan University because of a generous $100 million donation by N.J. zillionaire industrialist Henry Rowan. Jim is a Brooklyn-born Jersey Guy happily transplanted with his wife and three sons in the fertile plains of Kansas for the past 30 years. 

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