We’ll Soon Hand You the Baton
Steve Mitnick is Editor-in-Chief of Public Utilities Fortnightly and author of the book “Lines Down: How We Pay, Use, Value Grid Electricity Amid the Storm.”
This industry ignited the economic booms of the early and mid-twentieth century. It transformed society, commerce, culture, our way of life.
It continues to use, at its core, the same hundred-year old technology. Those early inventors would recognize the machines and equipment of today, some say.
It once was seen as cool and cutting edge. The industry attracted the best engineers. It employed proud millions.
Now, the industry is perceived as commonplace, past its prime. Some of the best engineers in our time dream to upend it.
Millions still man the plants and the industry's distribution and maintenance processes. Though noticeably more anonymously.
Yet, ironically, the American people rely on what these men and women do, more than ever before. And shall rely on them, and the dependability of what they deliver, ever more so in the future.
The industry's workforce has become measurably much more efficient. All too seldom said, safety and reliability is up. To historic highs. Real cost, to households and businesses, is down. To historic lows.
But for advocates egging for change, and press egging for the drama of change, the industry faces an existential threat. Industry leaders have clearly gotten the message. It's remarkably popular for advocates and press to predict such dramatic change. Change that shall take place practically overnight. Notwithstanding the technicalities and impracticalities.
While for the general public, the industry is no more than a necessary detail of contemporary life. For them, it's all ho hum.
For many young people, it's not even that. Many are unpersuaded and unpersuadable that the industry plays a necessary role. For them, it's all so yesterday.
The industry I've been describing? Well, it's the automobile industry.
I know. You thought I was referring to the electricity industry. A perfectly understandable mix-up.
For the pasts and futures of these two essential sectors, automobiles and electricity, are remarkably similar. Consider this.
Both industries drove economic growth and societal and cultural change. Our way of life is based on cars, trucks and electric power.
Both use historic technology. The internal combustion engine fueled by gasoline and diesel. Central power generation distributed through a grid. Though now far more capable versions are in use, versions that are way more productive and cost-effective.
As they evolved, broadening their societal benefit, both industries devolved. How did this come to pass? The automobile and electricity industries first inspired a generation. Then, after their newness diminished, that generation's children thought of them, treated them, more like deserved endowments.
That generation's grandchildren were further removed from the wonder of these industries. They hadn't seen how power and machines and appliances and cars and trucks changed our lives and our world.
They hadn't seen or heard stories about towns, farms and homes being electrified, and the celebrations. About the drudgery of daily tasks disappearing. Particularly for women, children, the elderly.
They've learned a little perhaps about overcoming, in wars hot and cold, the dangers of defeated dictators abroad. Menaces that could not have been beaten but for the strength of our automobile and electricity industries.
They enjoy of course the once-unimaginable freedoms, as do we all. Do they take for granted, more than those that lived or remember the stories, the freedoms that flow from mobility and machinery?
What they've lived, what their stories are about, are starkly different.
They associate these venerable industries with environmental despoilment. They associate them with technological obsolescence.
I understand why. It's easy to imagine plants and equipment are obsolete if much of your own experience, and the impetus of innovation now, is sleekly digital and virtual. Not so long ago, Enron called it asset-lite.
Communications, another foundational industry, is changing by leaps and bounds. It must seem impossible to some that transportation and energy isn't about to follow suit. Impossible that transportation and energy won't morph into something unrecognizable ten years hence. And then again ten years after that.
The products of both industries trail the most vital necessities of air, water and food in their importance to consumers, and to commercial concerns. But not by that much. The gap is closing. Everything runs on electricity, including water and food distribution. Almost all commerce runs on motor vehicles.
Both industries have become much more reliable. Much less costly in real terms. Much less impactful to the environment as well. Their overall value to consumers keeps climbing.
But no matter. Both industries are denounced, quite expertly, by ambitious start-ups seeking a share in half-trillion dollar markets. Since both are marginalized by millennials, it's a combustible mix for the incumbents.
Most of you work for those incumbents. Despite the heady rhetoric, your companies and agencies won't be completely upended in five or ten years' time. When the transformation truly takes place, when the meteor hits, when the dinosaurs die out, you and I will probably have moved on.
We'll soon hand off the baton, to the next generation. My generation further ripened the value proposition of electric utility service for consumers. While making our share of mistakes along the way (not a short list).
Secure that baton, you in the next generation. Take the greatest care with this precious ingredient of our communities, the electricity industry. Lift consumer value even higher. We're all counting on it and you.