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 that speed the 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, utilities have to import power from other states, and the deregulated prices that that 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 power cannot be taken for granted. As summer approaches and air conditioning adds to these power demands, California’s power crisis will only get worse, and 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. California’s manufacturing base, particularly in aerospace and high tech, makes a huge contribution to the overall U.S. economy. California’s power problems affect its industrial base and probably have 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 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, 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 contractors that focus on 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 contractors who learn to install these systems will profit.
It’s hard 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.