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Perspective

Fortnightly Magazine - April 15 1998

book, What Do You Care What Other People Think? Mr. Feynman served on the president's special commission investigating the tragic accident of the space shuttle Challenger. He describes in his book how he asked many NASA officials why they had lowered the shuttle's design standards. He was shocked when he repeatedly received the answer, "We hadn't had any accidents, so we figured we could lower the standards." As Feynman points out, the reason they had not had any accidents was precisely because they had high standards. Lower the criteria, and you're entering unexplored terrain.

MYTH #2: "IF YOU'RE FOCUSING ON RELIABILITY, YOU HAVEN'T GOTTEN THE MESSAGE." Reality: That's an actual quotation. So are these: "If your company is focusing on reliability, I'd downgrade your bonds right now." And, "Competition should be your top priority." It's difficult to comprehend, except for hubris, how anyone could make such a statement today. As a society, we are totally and irreversibly dependent on reliable electricity. Next to food and shelter it's probably the most essential of our everyday needs. We live in the Age of Information; its almost instantaneous acquisition and availability lie at the core of our economy. Without a reliable supply of electricity, almost nothing can happen. Yet intelligent people act like it isn't important. Would we tell American Airlines, "If you're focusing on safety, you haven't gotten the message?" Yet reliability is to electric power supply as safety is to air travel. Reliability should be everyone's top priority. It's in everyone's best interest, whether generator, marketer, transmission owner or customer.

AND THE #1 MYTH ABOUT ELECTRIC POWER DEREGULATION: RELIABILITY IN THE RESTRUCTURED INDUSTRY WILL BE JUST AS HIGH AS IN THE PAST. Reality: Don't bet on it! In fact, it's far more likely that deregulation and restructuring will lead to major degradation in bulk power system reliability. There are many reasons for this, some of which have already been touched on above. But here are a few of the most important:

Complication. Assuring reliability used to be fairly straightforward. There were few players, a relatively simple infrastructure, and near-universal commitment to the goals of reliability and conformance with criteria. Perhaps most important, there was a culture best characterized by cooperation and coordination. We now have an almost limitless number of participants, an increasingly complex infrastructure, little commitment to the goals of reliability, a "how can we beat it?" attitude toward criteria by many and a culture characterized at best by competition and confidentiality, and at worst by distrust, litigation and authoritarianism.

Legalism. Conformance with criteria is becoming an exercise in what we can get away with; how far can we go to just avoid violating the rules; and a search for loopholes. Conformance is "mandatory," and punishment assured. What a far cry from the days of so-called "voluntary" conformance, when players obeyed the rules because it was the right thing to do (how quaint!), and because they understood that reliability was in the best interests of all. You couldn't expect others to respect the rules if you didn't follow them yourself. That's a