After the dreaded Y2K computer bug came and went without a glitch, professionals in the electric and power industries faced a slew of unanswered questions at the dawn of the 21st century. How will utility deregulation pan out? Will the nation's overburdened electric power grid sustain our way of life? Will alternative fuel sources solve our energy woes and carry us into the next century? Despite these unknowns, one thing is certain. Over the past 100 years, we've grown to take electric power for granted, expecting round-the-clock reliable service regardless of the consequences.
As evidenced by the recent energy crisis in California, something has to change. Less than five years after becoming the first state in the country to restructure its electric utility industry, California has found itself in deregulation disaster. What went wrong? A flawed 1996 deregulation law coupled with a shortage of new power plants translates into the following reality: There's just not enough generating capacity to meet consumer demand. Therefore, utilities must import power from other states at open-market rates, which leads to sky-high prices, not to mention involuntary rolling blackouts. In retrospect, most people believe California should have seen the crisis coming. Unfortunately, politicians in charge of implementing the state's deregulation policy chose to ignore power market realities. They set up a power market that guaranteed prices would be set too low to support timely investment in new supply. Now, the citizens, businesses, and utilities are paying the price.
But California is not the only state at risk. Driven by the recent surge in Internet usage coupled with the data center construction craze, our nation's dependence on power is growing exponentially. Today's data centers house the network servers for Internet service providers (ISPs) and Web-hosting companies and provide renters or individual corporations with a secure connection to and from the Internet. Striving to deliver 100% uptime for such critical business functions as e-commerce, point-of-sale inventory, check clearing, and credit card processing, a typical data center demands hundreds of watts per square foot of reliable power service from utilities. Despite obstacles created by some of these fast-track data-center jobs (including unrealistic construction deadlines, permit problems, and labor shortages), contractors, engineers, and manufacturers will inevitably continue to cash in on connectivity for many years to come.
Will the nation's overburdened electric power grid sustain our way of life or fail under the pressure of new demand? Will alternative fuel sources solve our energy woes or never make it beyond the designer's imagination? Will our government enforce a national energy policy that pulls us out of the deregulation dilemma or bury us in regulatory quagmire? It depends. Energy conservation combined with new technological advancements should alleviate the strain on our transmission and distribution grid. And alternative fuel technology should meet the country's energy needs, as new developments in microturbine, fuel cell, UPS, solar, and generator technologies emerge. But only a year and a half into the first decade of the 21st century, it looks like those questions will remain unanswered for a while. Although forecasting the fate of the electrical construction and maintenance industry is impossible, you can be sure of one thing: Whatever happens, EC&M will be there through the next 100 years to find out.