Electric Utility Conspiracy?

Last night I heard a radio program featuring a professor from a prominent California university proclaiming that the recent electricity shortage in California is the result of a conspiracy.


Last night I heard a radio program featuring a professor from a prominent California university proclaiming that the recent electricity shortage in California is the result of a conspiracy. A handful of Texas-based natural-gas producers that now own key generating facilities, he believes, have exercised their chokehold on energy supply to the state, exposing a fundamental flaw in its deregulation plan.

While "conspiracy" may be a bit overblown, the idea of a power shortage in California-in the winter-certainly makes one wonder. Hopefully, the notion will at least knock the wind out of other misguided theories surfacing lately.

One particularly silly opinion from Engineering News-Record concludes that organized labor is to blame. By staging environmental protests, says the columnist, unions have strong-armed officials and developers into accepting union-only labor agreements, making power projects infeasible (and, by the way, increasing job-site deaths). The piece may uncover some key issues, but nonunion labor was never seen as the key to successful utility deregulation in California.

Still other observers maintain that environmentalists or a lack of energy-conservation measures are to blame for California's woes. Well, the state is still among the top five in meeting both mandated and voluntary energy-use reductions in residential and commercial facilities-even after the demise of utility rebates-so forget that idea. And of the "greenies," yes, they have successfully impeded a few power-plant projects, but as a lobby they are a small and only marginally effective influence on industrial development, even in California.

The biggest influences on how deregulation was set up, on the other hand, were the electric utilities themselves. Today, utility spin-offs and natural-gas producers-who own most of the generating infrastructure-own California's energy destiny. Future utility legislation should bear that in mind.

VE Apologia

It seems I struck a nerve in my portrayal of value engineering (VE) in December. While I must backpedal a bit-certainly many VE specialists have "sound moral and ethical values"-I must also hold my ground. In the arena of mechanical and electrical system design, most VE is conducted by untrained general and trade contractors. Projects involving a Certified Value Specialist (CVS) are by far the exception, not the rule. Elsewhere, and particularly in civil and environmental design, VE is a critical step, conducted exclusively by licensed engineers.

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