It's Time to Hit the Road

April 1, 2004
A car with a manual transmission lets me express my moods. If melancholy, I shift smooth and easy. When I'm upset, I wind the engine up and shift early

A car with a manual transmission lets me express my moods. If melancholy, I shift smooth and easy. When I'm upset, I wind the engine up and shift early and hard.

Over an 18-year period, I have managed to stick my way through two cars and a Jeep. I like the road, and the road usually likes me.

This May, I'm hitting the highway for a nine-hour ride to Indianapolis. Why? Because this year, my favorite event — the T&D World Expo — will be held in the “Circle City.” Indianapolis is a great show town. In addition to the T&D World Expo, it hosts the biggest event in racing — the Indianapolis 500. We will be gathering a week before the race, so attendees will catch a piece of the action as the city gears up for the event.

The T&D World Expo Steers into Indy

In Indy, the T&D show team will provide access to exhibitors from all over North America (and the world, for that matter). As you navigate the aisles of the biggest show floor in T&D in 2004, you'll be able to check out the latest in technology and work processes. We're revving up to bring you pre-conference workshops, as well as a bevy of speakers who will address critical business and technical issues. We also have an impressive lineup of companies for you to meet and greet.

Timing Couldn't Be Better

After a few rough years, we are pulling out of the economic doldrums, and utilities are hiring again. In addition, our utility executives have abandoned the excesses of the past and have decided to reverse 10 years of neglect. Several weeks ago, I sat in on a panel where Wall Street analysts told us what they now look for in a utility stock. These “sages” have made a 180-degree turn from years past, when they rewarded utilities that chased high growth, 20% return businesses. Analysts are now looking for utilities that are investing in infrastructure, run a sound operation and maintain good relations with customers and regulators.

Today, analysts are rewarding utilities that stick to their knitting by providing low-cost reliable power. Analysts are willing to keep an eye on growth prospects, but only if utilities are expanding in areas where they know something. It looks as if ventures into telecom, real estate, home security and power trading are over — at least until the next wave of insanity hits.

This change in direction is good for our power-delivery system. It also is good news for you and me. Right now, utilities are pouring big bucks into transmission and substation facilities. Major grid upgrades are underway in Georgia, California, Wisconsin and Utah. While other states are getting in on the act, not all utilities are participating. The utilities that squandered their cash and ran up debt are sitting on the sidelines; this does not bode well for customers down the road.

Investment in distribution also is beginning to pick up as it coincides with growth of the economy and new construction. Of course, the housing market has remained strong, and business is finally investing in facilities again.

I am discovering, at least in the Northeast, utilities are again preparing rate cases. Maybe regulators now realize there is no utility fat left to cut. Ultimately, regulators must support rate increases or they will force utilities to turn to the dark side again in an attempt to lift earnings.

I'm hoping that, as an industry, we can get our collective act together and boost our beleaguered grid. For years, the North American Electric Reliability Council (NERC) has been trying to put some teeth in its recommendations. In fact, NERC has been begging for the authority to enforce minimum reliability standards. Now, it looks as if that might happen.

Dave Nevius, NERC senior vice president, will open the T&D World Expo as keynote speaker. I can't wait to hear what he has to say. I hope he can share what it was like when the press descended on NERC and other organizations after the Northeast blackout. Of course, NERC was an easy target, because its mission is to ensure that the bulk electric system in North America is reliable, adequate and secure. But how could NERC meet its mission without the requisite authority? Talk about a “mission impossible.” Nevius is knee-deep in efforts to transform NERC from a voluntary organization to a regulatory organization with “teeth” that can actually set and enforce bulk-power-system reliability standards.

The electric utility industry is at a crossroads. The goal is clear: We are committed to building a more secure, safe reliable system, but this takes more than talk. It takes committed people with the knowledge and resources to install the most reliable equipment and materials available today. To pull this off, we must keep our skills and contacts honed.

So road warriors, fasten your seatbelts, start your engines and wheel on over to Indianapolis. I look forward to seeing you there.

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