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Perspective

Fortnightly Magazine - April 15 1998

way of functioning that the bureaucratic mind simply cannot conceive of, and yet it's the way most of North America functioned for more than a generation. And functioned very well, thank you, as the record clearly proves.

Politicization. Now that the reliability infrastructure has made conformance with reliability standards "mandatory," which apparently it cannot legally do without governmental authorization, Pandora's box has been opened to politicians and bureaucrats. But, of course, this is the inevitable outcome of the regulatory takeover of the industry's own organizations. A federal "backstop," we are told, must be provided. Government must review and sanction all standards. And reliability is OK if it doesn't get in the way of the market. Political expediency will replace the judgment of professional experts.

Expediency. Many of the industry's own organizations, which were established to promote reliability, have in essence sold their birthright. They have judged that the pragmatic course is to follow the politically correct approach, "If you can't beat 'em, join 'em." Some did this because they genuinely believed they had no alternative, and this was a less-than-perfect way to maintain at least some leverage vis-a-vis reliability. Some did it to survive. Some saw opportunities to build new empires. A few became "true believers." And some simply lacked the courage. All have been, in my view, misguided.

The Bottom Line

We will see more blackouts. It may take just a few months, or it may take years (we are dealing with the subtleties of probability), but it will happen, make no mistake about it. If this is so, one might ask, how come so few people have said it? Ah, there's the rub! Well, for one thing, engineers love order (em and most of the people who would agree with me are also engineers. We don't like to rock the boat. We'd rather work from within, and we have a devotion to authority that is sometimes far too strong. Many believe that, given the present situation, the only way to help reliability is to work from within and try to make the best of a bad situation. And, some of us would like to keep our jobs! There's been a kind of blanket of silence thrown over the whole industry. It's not written down anywhere, but everyone knows that speaking out, even in private meetings, may, to paraphrase the Surgeon General, be dangerous to your career. Everyone knows, too, that decisions will be made at the top, and contrary opinions are not welcome; one organization actually bragged about turning itself into a "top down" organization.

What happens next? Well, it's far too late to stop this train, no matter what happens in the near term. We'll all have to sit tight and hope for the best. And do what we each can. Because, in the end, that's all we can do.

George C. Loehr is a consultant who also teaches courses on electric power systems and power reliability. He served as executive director of the Northeast Power Coordinating Council from 1989 until April 1997. His article, "Transmission Reliability in the