Its reliability, stupid!

Michael T. Burr,

Managing Editor

Anyone who saw the movie Jurassic Park (or read the Michael Crichton novel) knows technology can`t overcome Mother Nature.

Residents of the U.S. northeast seaboard were treated to a real-world demonstra- tion of this principle in early July when a sweltering heat wave engulfed the region. Multiple days with temperatures exceeding 100 F drove power demands to new records and stressed distribution equipment beyond its limits.

In New York City, with usage peaking and air temperatures rising, cable insulation melted and electricity arced across lines in densely humid air. Transformers overheated and burst into flames. When eight of Con Edison`s 14 high-voltage cables serving upper Manhattan failed, some 200,000 people found themselves sweating in the dark.

New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, along with millions of other steamed New Yorkers, chastised Con Edison for apparently dropping the ball at the worst possible moment. “This is criminal,” one incredulous resident charged. “There ought to be a law against cutting off the electricity in this kind of heat. The power should never go off.”

Indeed. Here we are, on the cusp of the 21st Century, and a couple of Houston-like days in SoHo bring widespread brownouts and blackouts. What`s wrong with this picture?

I guess it should come as no surprise that such events occur, knowing how much of the U.S. utility grid is so old as to be worthy of museum display.

Over the past 20 years, many utilities have gone on a starvation diet. Averse to risks, they`ve delayed investments in virtually everything from power plant construction to tree-trimming.

Capacity reserve margins have dipped into single digits across the country. Some justify this by pointing to regional transmission management and merchant power development. And indeed merchant plant developers have picked up the ball. But the same arguments don`t apply to the distribution end of the business.

I`ve heard countless anecdotes from electric distribution engineers about how equipment that has long since exceeded its useful life is routinely patched up and pressed back into service. The Y2K deadline for disaster has forced utilities to replace many information-dependent systems, but dumber types of aging hardware are still operating when they should have been scrapped years ago.

There`s no reasonable excuse for allowing electric distribution infrastructure to deteriorate such that fully 50 percent of the lines feeding a given area will fail in weather conditions that-let`s face it-are not that uncommon. Nearly every summer brings a heat wave somewhere. In New York, it happened in 1993, it happened last month, and it will happen again-maybe before this summer ends.

The Northeast brownouts suggest utilities` obligation to serve has fallen victim to slash-and-burn business tactics. One might blame deregulation and competition. Utilities seeking to raise their competitiveness in a deregulating power industry have been forced to cut budgets. But is that any excuse? Delivering reliable service used to be what holding a utility franchise was all about.

Innocent human lives are at stake. There should be no greater incentive for maintaining the highest standards of system integrity.

Perhaps the problem is an apparent disconnect between the utility`s corporate bottom line and retail electricity consumers` lives and livelihoods. Be warned, however: the connection will become painfully obvious in the emerging competitive marketplace.

As the retail utility market expands with e-commerce and service bundles, consumers will beat a virtual path to the cyber-doors of companies with a reputation for delivering quality service. Conversely, they will remember suffering through long service interruptions and becoming exasperated with impersonal customer relations departments.

When consumers consider, for example, what kind of broadband communications architecture they need for their businesses and homes, their decisions will favor companies with a dedication to providing cutting-edge technology solutions-not those that stubbornly cling to 50-year-old distribution infrastructure.

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