The 20th century dawned with Nikola Telsa's vision of a power grid built upon alternating current (AC), outdoing Thomas Edison's direct current scheme (DC). That vision shaped the century into an electrical odyssey in which clever minds transformed electricity from running motors and powering lighting into serving information technology needs.

But the real electric revolution began in the 1960s, when the integrated circuit, and later the microprocessor, became the universal machines for powering the information age. In this ongoing information revolution, digital technology is changing the way we work and live. Interconnected networks bring communications to thousands at a breathtaking speed.

With all corners of the world being wired into the Internet, the need for stable, reliable electrical power is increasingly important. We are entering a new electrical century in which the type of electricity (super reliable and clean) that the information economy requires will be provided by a rebuilt power grid.

Consider this: today's high technology runs on the "Smart Chip" (a microprocessor consuming a fraction of a watt of power). The "Power Chip" (a silicon-based device capable of switching a megawatt of power) will prevail in the 21st century. The Power Chip does exactly what a transistor does: It uses a smaller current to switch a large one. But in the case of utilities, a much larger one.

Look for the Power Chip to help take apart and put back together the trillion-dollar U.S. network of central power stations and distribution lines and the $500 billion-a-year kilowatt-hour economy.

The Power Chip was developed between 1975 and 1995, a period in which power rating of individual Power Chips barely doubled while the market for power conversion semiconductors grew to an $8 billion market.

While only about 12% of the world's electricity is presently switched by Power Chips, 100% penetration is inevitable, and the most critical and profitable market will be supporting the requirements of the Smart Chips (the microprocessors). Today's modern computers and communications equipment need upwards of "Ten Nines" of reliability in their power supply.

Hospitals, airports and other facilities have demanded better than 99.9% ("Three-Nines") reliability (what the electric power grid provides) for years, and thus have standby generating systems. Consider that 99.9% reliability translates into about eight hours of outage a year. But, as microprocessors and Web links penetrate deep into the economy, and into the facilities of even ordinary business, power quality and reliability become very important.

Communications and business computers have reliability demands that start at Six-Nines, 99.9999%, uptime. This is about 30-seconds total outage a year. How much will people pay for these additional Nines? What does it cost an Internet brokerage firm to go off-line for an hour? What does it cost a wireless phone company when it loses a cellular phone base station in a major city?

Flywheels, coils, and fuel-cells To add these Nines, industry uses an array of products. They range from capacitors and inductors mounted on a motherboard or in a UPS to handle interruptions of milliseconds; to batteries, flywheels and superconducting coils to handle interruptions of seconds to minutes; and diesel generators and turbines to supply backup for hours or days. Every step requires a switch that can operate fast and cleanly enough to make the switching process invisible to the microprocessor.

Building reliability is expensive, and it gets more expensive with each additional Nine. For example, Six-Nines reliability comes at a cost of perhaps $1,000/kWh. At the Nine- and Ten- Nines level, the cost is about $100,000/kwh. However, clean information-quality power is a must in the information economy, and thus is one of the greatest business opportunities for electrical contractors and engineers.

As microprocessors become even more ubiquitous, the profits in premium power will soon exceed those in the Three-Nines market (the electrical power system). In the years ahead, electrical contractors will be providing a growing variety of clean/reliable power equipment in three categories: clean power systems, ride-through systems and stand-alone local generators.

The Huber/Mills Power Report, a newsletter published by the GilderGroup and introduced at the 1999 Gilder/Forbes Telecom Conference, clearly outlined four factors in the power industry to look forward to in this new century: 1. The demand for High-Nines power is altogether new, and this reliability is demanded by the Internet economy and associated businesses.

2. The power electronics required to bring standby generators online quickly and cleanly matured just recently. Safely and economically interfacing half-megawatt generators was impossible only five years ago. It's readily available today.

3. The deregulation of the power industry is accelerating just as the Power Chip makes deregulation relevant.

4. The revolution in materials science and engineering has almost doubled the efficiency and boosted reliability of the diesel engine. A 1981 Caterpillar 3500 series produced 900kW; the same block and geometry now produces 2,200kW. Digital control and monitoring eliminates the mechanical governor, alternator and voltage regulator and improves generator-set performance. Main-taining a diesel engine's rotational speed at a specified level over a range of loads, the newest type of electronic engine controller typically consists of an electronic control module (ECM) and a fuel injection system. Windows- compatible software controls startup, fuel economy and voltage stability. Communications technology allows real-time and remote monitoring and diagnosis, thus boosting reliability and reducing costs.

Bringing about the changes The Huber/Mills Power Report claims that as the number of local generators, installed originally to provide High-Nines insurance to their owners, grows, the architecture of the power system grid will change.

These predictions are being borne out. Here are some examples. New York Power Authority (NYPA) President and Chief Operating Officer Eugene W. Zeltmann said an "explosion of new technology" brought about by competition in the utility industry promises to affect all aspects of how electricity is produced, delivered and consumed.

In Zeltmann's view, part of the new technology will be improvements in the traditional central power stations and the transmission grid. For example, the NYPA is installing a first-of-its-kind transmission control device at its Marcy Substation near Utica, N.Y.. "This convertible static compensator will use high-speed solid-state electronics to control electricity flow and permit more efficient use of existing transmission lines. It could revolutionize delivery of electricity in the competitive age," Zeltmann said.

"Another technological path is marked by various forms of localized, distributed generation such as fuel cells, rooftop solar photovoltaic systems and microturbines. In fact, for the first time in decades, the most economical way to add electric generating capacity could be to build small, efficient plants located near the end user."

The NYPA cogeneration, projects-which use heat left over from the generation process to supply more energy-include a 200kW fuel cell at a Westchester County wastewater treatment plant in Yonkers, N.Y. It's the first fuel cell in the Western Hemisphere to run on a gas produced in the sewage treatment process. By processing the gas, the fuel cell yields hydrogen, which combines with oxygen in a chemical reaction that produces electricity and hot water.

The First National Bank of Omaha, the seventh largest credit card processor in the country with 6.5 million customers, is using fuel cells as the primary power source at the firm's 200,000-sq-ft data center. The data center contains two redundant pairsof fuel cells, each about the size of a dumpster, and capable of producing 400kW of electric power. Since the center needs about 300kW to function, even if two of the four fuel cells failed, the bank would generate more than enough power to satisfy all its needs. A UPS and a diesel generator is the first backup; Omaha Public Power, the local electric utility, is the second backup.

At the same time, a dot.com or net-bank with a large power appetite can now turn to an electromechanical flywheel to replace one of its two redundant battery banks. An electromechanical flywheel, using one-tenth the floor space of an equivalent battery storage capacity, requires essentially no maintenance.

An electric motor runs, when there is power, to spin a one-ton steel flywheel. When the power fails, the motor reverses and becomes a generator, powered by the flywheel's inertia good for 250kW and more, for as long as it takes to power up the standby generator. This past summer, Constellation Energy (the Baltimore Gas and Electric Parent) installed a system as part of the UPS serving Comcast's critical cable and Internet hub facility.

Also on the horizon are mini-and micro-turbines, smaller versions of the aircraft engine, which run flat out, round-the-clock. Look forward to a 100-lb machine producing 400kW.

Tomorrow's power What can we look forward to? This is what the Huber/Mills Power report predicts: Half of all the electric systems will be anchored in the Internet Economy within the next decade. Once established, competition for proving reliability will grow. Clean 100kW to 1,000kW diesel generators, mini- and micro-turbines will first be standard equipment alongside the buildings that house ISP, dot.coms and network POPs. Not long after, they will appear in every other major business and factory and finally in apartment and residential developments.

How soon will this market be significant? Today more than 95% of all electricity comes from utility sources. The nation's grid has about 760mW of capacity. About 10%-some 80,000mW-is used (dispatched) only hours per year to support Three- Nines grid reliability.

Sitting on the grid, uncounted by the official counters and unnoticed by ordinary rate-payers, there already stands another 80,000mW of non-utility standby-generating capacity. It too is on only hours a year-right now. None of this capacity is included in official government data, and the raw capacity figures don't tell the whole story:

1.This capacity is privately owned; it's entirely free of price regulation.

2. Nevertheless, when regulatory conditions are favorable, it can pump power back into the grid for sale to others.

3. It offers short-wire, Six-Nines reliability and can command prices and margins to match.

The first two factors alone would spur very healthy growth in generator sales. But the third will push things way over the top.