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Believe it or Not: It Could Happen Again

August 18, 2003

Just as lights and air conditioners flutter back to life for 50 million people across the Northeast following the largest power failure in history comes an ominous warning: unless transmission capacity is dramatically improved, could happen again. And again.

Its no coincidence that on a hot August day the electricity system failed in the region that is most advanced in utility deregulation, the competitive model that turned the once reliable, self-sustaining utility business into a competitive marketplace where profit-making comes at the price of all else. Gone are the days when utility companies had an obligation to service customers.

As a result, newly streamlined utility companies are torturing aging transmission grids to fit the new reality of deregulation, selling electricity across state and country boundaries and overworking a system that was designed for local power distribution, said IBEW Utility Department International Representative Jim Hunter.

"Were trying to use our transmission system as a superhighway when in fact its a bunch of one-way streetspower can only flow in one direction at a time," Hunter said. "Transmission grids were designed and built to deliver electricity from regulated companies power plants to their customers, not between systems. Deregulation places extraordinary stresses on the transmission system it was not designed to deal with."

While deregulation promised profits for competitive markets, the uncertainty it introduced in the utility industry has prevented the players from investing in new construction. In the 10 years since utility deregulation has been introduced, power companies have built few new transmission lines. Today, while the country increasingly relies on electricity and demand continues to climb, no corresponding plans are in place to increase transmission capacity. Transmission investment in 2000 was less than half of what it was in 1975.

"There are very few plans on the drawing board for building and its going to get worse," Hunter said. "Companies are concerned that they will not be able to receive a fair return on their investment, so they are not building new lines."

With nothing to build, many transmission construction companies have folded and the experienced work force that was once so skilled at building towers, fabricating and running high-voltage electrical lines has retired, and companies have not hired the necessary younger workers into apprentice programs.

"One question is whos going to build when it comes times," Hunter said. "We need to start today to hire and train the work force for the next generation of linemen."