Tdworld 19900 Third World Getty

10 More Ways to Become a Third-World Utility

Oct. 1, 2019
It is time our industry took credit for the great job they do and go forward again.

One of the advantages of old age is you can say more of what you actually think. Having been in the utility business for over 40 years, I’ve seen many things. I’ve noticed that many ideas are reinvented every 10 or 20 years and my insight into the fate of some of these ideas is misinterpreted as “unusual insight.” I’m thinking “fool me once…and so forth.” There have been any number of things which concern me.

Some years ago I wrote a paper, “10 Ways to Become a Third-World Utility,” that was very well received...a big surprise to me! I’ve got another 10 here, which are meant to be constructive and parallel what many of you are really thinking but are not in a position to broadcast to the world.

1. Allow the Lawmakers to Do the Engineering

As an industry, we have allowed the government to do a lot of our engineering. They make the rules and we react, for things like:

  • ArcFlash
  • Electromotive force (EMF)
  • Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs)
  • Stray voltage
  • Smart grid
  • Contracts (protect ourselves from nonsense lawsuits)
  • Power quality
  • Distributed generation
  • Global warming

In Michael Crichton’s (Jurassic Park fame) book, Ways We Scare Ourselves, he mentions the health threats posed by power lines lasted more than a decade and according to one expert cost the nation US$25 billion before many studies determined the concern to be false. Michael has a medical degree. Ironically, 10 years later, the same magnetic fields were being used for therapy. When was the last time the utility industry said “no more, we know better than the politicians?” Now don’t get me wrong, some of the items above are good but not so good they should be mandated, wasting hundreds of millions of dollars. There are many experts that have voiced their counter opinion on things like global warming but I have yet to hear anyone in our industry dispute any of this and object to “carbon credits.”

This situation, to a large degree, is our own fault. By not developing experts in various engineering disciplines and allowing these individuals to interact with others in the industry via meetings and so forth, we have created a situation where many utility engineers are not aware of similar concerns and experience of their peers. This creates engineers that have an “isolated” feeling when it comes to technical discussions with customers and lawmakers. This coupled with the desire to “keep a low profile” for the sake of job security ensures a muted response to these issues.

2. Let Computer Programs Replace Intuition and Experience

When I started in the business with GE, they intensively trained me for four years. I felt like all I did was go to school. Their courses were very demanding and taught by the best people in the industry. Boy, did I moan at the pace and my wife wasn’t too happy with all the evenings and weekends I spent studying. I felt back then that I didn’t contribute a dime to the company bottom line for those first four years (I was an electrical VAR). When GE released me as an application engineer (to become a Watt), I still had a lifetime of learning to do but I was somewhat prepared. Today, an engineer is hired out of college, reports to work at 8 a.m. and, “because of computers,” is able to do so-called productive work immediately. Sounds great but it has some very major drawbacks. For one, this engineer may never have had a single course on power systems but is able to compute short circuit levels, coordination schemes, voltage drop scenarios, reliability indices, and so forth, and has no idea what any of this means or if the answers are correct. The sad thing is he may never know because no one is there to mentor him (part of the “Retire the Relics” initiative). If he or she calculates a bolted fault at a distribution substation of 100,000 A or 10 A, that’s fine since the computer said it.

Admittedly, many in the industry have called me “computer illiterate” and to some degree that’s a true profile of my digital aptitude. On the other hand, I tend to resist the mind numbing lure of the computer because I really want to understand what’s going on in the system before I trust any answer the computer gives me. I want to essentially know the answer before I ask the computer to confirm that I’ve entered the data correctly. A side benefit to understanding is that it makes working a lot more fun.

Finally, asking computers to make decisions has always baffled me. I have far more confidence in the opinion of some of the old timers I know than some program written as a “graduate student” project. Financial institutions did the same thing, when they entrusted our money with computer smart MBAs and we know where that took us. Companies that create an attractive environment, which encourages their good engineers to stay and gain experience, have a distinct advantage over others in the industry where everyone seems to have less than five years of experience.

3. Mirror the Airline Industry

On April 11, 2008, the news reported that American Airlines (historically my airline of choice...I’ve got over a million miles with these folks), as a result of maintenance issues, had cancelled over 2500 flights over a four-day period inconveniencing over 270,000 people and the end was not in sight. Also reported was that almost 80% of the inspected planes did not pass inspection.

I’ve always seen a distinct parallel between the deregulation of the airlines and the deregulation of utilities. I’ve seen both industries go from a position of quality of service to one where they are just “holding on.” Both have tried to hold prices while fuel costs have gone up at record rates and I ask myself “how can that be?” Both have cut back benefits and offered early retirement. Both have pushed their equipments to the limits and hoped for the best. Few things are retired because of age in either industry. Interesting point made recently (amid three airlines looking at bankruptcy) was that since 1978, the consumer price index (CPI) has increased twice as fast as airfare. Certainly, something had to happen especially when you consider how sensitive the airline industry is to fuel prices. Sound familiar?

I’m all for free enterprise. But, deregulation in the utility industry has not appeared to have resulted in less government involvement. On the contrary, it seems that a much larger percent of the work being done by utilities is mandated by either the government or lawyers fearing litigation (see item #1).

4. Provide No Career Path in Engineering

If my memory is correct, back in the 60s when I first started, engineering managers made most of the system financial decisions and had responsibility for large groups of engineers. These managers were very capable and tended to have at least 20 to 30 years of experience in engineering, usually with the same company. The end result was they essentially determined what was bought and who it was purchased from. To attain this level of authority, you had to be good and you had to stay in engineering.

Some of those types still exist and continue to perform admirably. The trend I have seen is away from this type of individual. Clearly, decisions in today’s world tend to be heavily determined by accountants, computer programs, and lawyers. The frustration this causes at the engineering level results in many of the top entry engineers finding themselves headed into supervisory roles, where the money is. There no longer seems to be a well-defined engineering career path in many utilities, that is, a path where engineering achievement and knowledge is rewarded. Any industry engineering instructor, who’s been around for more than 20 years, will tell you that the composition of engineering classes today is vastly different than years ago, because of the experience level of the students and the nature of their jobs.

5. Don’t Take a Stand

The utility industry does not appear to voice their opinion when major issues need to be confronted. Reliability in the United States is pretty darn good and it’s not cheap to make it a little better. Electricity is also pretty inexpensive, relatively speaking, and the price hasn’t risen like everything else in our lives. Why do you never hear utilities say, “Hey! We’re doing a darn good job.” Some other items that are simply not addressed adequately are:

  • Nuclear – It’s used safely all over the world. For modern countries, Canada and the United States are dead last in their percentage use of nuclear. Canada has quite a bit of hydroelectric and tar sand (in Alberta) so they’re not as dependent on others. France is 80% nuclear. Does using gas and oil to make electricity make sense? If not, why don’t we say that?
  • Coal – Apparently the new coal plants are very clean but why do we never hear this? The United States has tremendous coal reserves.
  • PCBs – I was never sure if the panic on this fluid was justified, but it sure cost the industry a bundle to change out.
  • Tree trimming – Trees cause interruptions and customers don’t want interruptions. You can’t have it both ways.
  • EMF – EMF is not caused by voltage. It’s a magnetic field caused by current. The noise you hear on the radio and which many customers associate incorrectly with EMF is caused by voltage not current. Customers think those big power lines must have more EMF than the smaller ones. The current in a primary lateral tap is about 25 A (typically uses a 65-A fuse). The panel box in your house is for 200 A. Why was this never made clear?
  • Momentaries – Converting temporary faults to sustained interruptions by using a “fuse blow” scheme increases system average interruption duration index (SAIDI). Why don’t we tell customers that when they complain of blinking clocks?

6. Encourage DGs

As a former member of the Sierra Club and the Adirondack Mountain Club, I think I can consider myself “moderately into nature.” My passion has and continues to be dogs (labs and retrievers), which I take to the woods every morning before work. I also fish quite a bit but not well. That said, I really like nature. I’m a little confused by all this DG stuff, especially as it impacts the environment. It’s touted as great for the environment, great for reliability, power quality, and economics. I, apparently, as a result of becoming a fossil, don’t understand the logic here and assume I must be wrong since my utility friends don’t voice a dissenting opinion…at least publicly. Let’s look at some of these issues.

  • Environment – Solar panels take up massive amounts of space to do their thing. Microturbines make enough noise to simulate having your home at an airport. Wind machines are very big and last time I looked, they were ugly.
  • Reliability – If I powered my house solely via solar power or wind, would it be reliable? Last solar test I saw indicated that the thing worked well only when the sun was out (and directly overhead). I replace my solar powered driveway lights at least once every five years so I’m having some trouble with the claim that solar power (also: microturbines, windmills, and so forth) have such great reliability.
  • Power quality – Nothing on a typical utility system (not counting customer loads), that I know of, is a producer of harmonics, flicker, and so forth. On the other hand, most of the DG ideas are major producers of harmonics (for example, solar), flicker (wind power), and other major concerns like overvoltages, surges, fault currents, and safety issues.
  • Cost – Did I say cost? Let’s show true costs. For example, let’s say solar panels are free. Does that mean that energy will be free? Heck no! To use solar (for example, as a homeowner) you would have to:
    • Probably cut down some trees.
    • Reinforce your roof.
    • Purchase an inverter to convert the dc to ac.
    • Purchase a transformer to convert the power to 120 V.
    • Purchase some form of unusual metering to be compatible with the utility.
    • Purchase some form of interconnection package if I intend to make big bucks selling it back to the utility.

I’m actually in favor of some forms of alternative energy for many applications. I simply cannot remember a utility objecting to any form of renewable energy and the public seems to think that this type of energy is perfect and will allow the United Sates to be energy independent. I cannot understand other things like converting food (wheat) to fuel (ethanol), when there seems to be so many better ways to create energy. I remind a lot of my fellow engineers that these technologies have been around for over 40 years and, in many cases, are the only choices for underdeveloped countries, who would love to have a large grid like the United States.

7. Withdraw support of colleges and universities

In my early days, we really did not need a formal education in power because we were trained on the job and mentored extensively. Today, I see little of either. I used to say that a MSEE in power was unnecessary for this reason. I’ve changed my mind. Today, I really think to be effective in engineering in our industry, you need a masters in power since there’s little mentoring. Paradoxically, I do not see nearly as many utility engineers with either masters or doctorates in power, which is making things even worse. This might be caused by one of the following:

  • Less power programs – Many power programs in the United States have been reduced or completely eliminated.
  • Graduate funding – Graduate funding from utilities and manufacturers has been reduced or eliminated.
  • No opportunity – It doesn’t make sense to spend time and money getting an advanced degree and then not being able to apply it. Per the IEEE Spectrum March 2008, the U.S. industry now spends three times as much on litigation than it does on research. In the past two decades, the number of engineering graduates has decreased by 18% (as a proportion of the graduating students, the decline is 40%.) The number of doctorates has decreased by 23% in the past 10 years.

8. Support Global Warming Alarmists

I saw a movie last year on global warming that compared global warming with a poorly performing car. It is said that if you had a car that wasn’t running correctly, you’d probably first check the engine (analogy, the sun) and then the transmission (analogy, the clouds), not the lug nuts (analogy impact of human beings). I’ve also read several articles stating that global warming is nonsense:

  • London Daily Express, Feb. 18, 2008, stated near a third more ice is now in the Antarctica than usual.
  • U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), March 14, 2008, stated that almost all the ice allegedly lost in the Artic is back.
  • Newsweek, 1970: Remember the cover story about the beginning of the ice age?
  • Weather Channel Founder stated that the global warming myth was the biggest hoax he had ever seen.
  • NASA: Mars is also warming. (I guess this implies they too have SUVs.)
  • Others, and the list goes on and on.

But, I have not heard any word from utility executives even asking for debate on this issue. All I hear is obtaining “carbon credits,” implying, to me, that global warming is a reality and can be controlled by humans.

I do not doubt the concepts of “global warming” or “global cooling.” I think that’s the way the universe is...nothing’s static. What I do question is the lack of honest debate and the acceptance of extremely costly solutions. I’m not sure any of our customers has any idea of the real cost to them, should some of these measures to reduce “global warming” be implemented.

9. No Research or Papers

There was a time when the majority of technical papers in our industry were written by utility and manufacturing engineers. Today, most of the papers appear to be written by graduate students and most of those from other parts of the world. What’s going on? Here are some observations as to why we no longer see these contributors:

  • Reduced testing – This is too expensive these days and requires trained personnel. Many laboratories have closed.
  • Purchase on price – No more comparison of product characteristics since the goal today is to “buy on price.”
  • No product development – With the exception of a few manufactures, very little is happening in the area of hardware development. Almost everything you see has to do with some form of software engineering.
  • Technical consortiums – Some interesting work is being performed, but is done by consortiums, which limit publication of the results to their members.
  • Education level – Lack of training results in lack of technical development. Couple this with the decrease in the numbers of mentors and you get an idea of the dilemma faced by entry engineers attempting to pursue engineering advances.

10. Don’t State Your Case to the Public

Finally, if utilities lack one characteristic that I think hurts them, it’s that they don’t state their case adequately to the public. They just apologize. Why apologize when you’ve done such a great job over the years? Why not just state your case to your customers and give them your position on things like:

  • Rate increases
  • Generation needs
  • Transmission requirements
  • Reliability
  • Power quality, and so forth.


I have the utmost respect for both the manufactures and utilities who have served their customers so well over my 40 plus years. It appears to me and many of us in this industry, that we are going backwards as a result of fear of litigation and government regulations. I think it’s time our industry took credit for the great job they do and go forward again.

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