Joe Knisley makes a good point in "How to maintain clean power in your electrical system." He notes that deregulation could lower power quality as utilities cut corners on maintenance to remain competitive. For example, utilities might cut power-line tree-trimming work from three times to two times a year. Less maintenance, of course, means longer and more frequent power outages.

Electrical power deregulation will spawn winners and losers. Large industrial plants that have the wherewithal to negotiate better rates will win. UPS and generator manufacturers will win. And best of all, electrical contractors could win more work installing high-voltage systems and UPS systems and generators. Potential losers: everyone else, who could end up paying higher rates for lower power quality.

Electrical power has been regulated for more than 100 years. And so far California and Massachusetts offer too few early clues of what national deregulation will bring. Also, every deregulation story is different. Airline competition lowered fares, but booking flights to practically anywhere turned into a nightmarish spin of the roulette wheel. Critics also claim that airline deregulation led to airplane maintenance that imperils passengers. (Interestingly, old wiring is often the culprit for unsafe planes.) Telephone deregulation lowered rates, but sleazy sales dodges angered customers used to rock-solid service. Telecom deregulation so far has simply allowed monopolistic cable TV vendors to raise their rates.

Competition is essential because it creates new products, improves existing technology, and generally lowers prices. But in specialized arenas with too few players, the customer can get the short end of the stick to accommodate "open" markets. In the heavily-regulated electrical power-generation industry, deregulation could offset a complicated balance of regulations and standards.

Conventional capitalistic wisdom says that competition lowers prices and improves services. It's true, but lately Wall Street corporate competition has led to corporate consolidation that pushes smaller companies' products off the shelves. Consolidation has many benefits: better employee benefits and group insurance, better organization and specialization, more specific written work standards and policies, and an economy of scale that lowers prices. But big corporations often cut corners that compromise quality. "Bean counters" looking to advance their careers ignore the big picture and concentrate on raising the quarterly bottom line. End result: product-quality suffers and job-security is threatened.

So, if your company is swallowed whole by a big corporation and you find yourself sitting in a corporate boardroom, remember to look out for falling quality when you hear something like: "Gentleman, we have to economize on our maintenance to stay competitive. The bottom line is we have a responsibility to our stockholders." It's weasel reasoning. And it rubs against the contractor's maverick entrepreneurial spirit and runs counter to the engineer's code of building a product to last.