Monday, December 11, 2017

1880 Electric Tales

1880 Electric Tales

Back in the bad old days New Yorkers would say “I don’t trust air I can’t see.”  One reason for that is little neighborhood electric generating plants scattered here and there in lower Manhattan, spewed who knows what-all into the air.

There aren’t any of those left.  So now there’s a lot of air downtown you can’t trust because you can’t see it. But in their day, they were common and Liam O’Malley was one of the last guys with a job you probably never heard of, Master of a DC Plant.

In the early days of electrification, there weren’t AC and DC, there was just DC, which boy genius and thief Thomas Edison said was the most efficient way to transmit power.

There’s a problem with that. DC -- Direct Current -- doesn’t travel well.  That’s why they don’t use it anymore.  AC -- alternating current DOES travel well and that’s why you’ve never seen the place that sends electricity to your house.  It might be a few miles away. But it could just as easily be in Bulgaria.

What, exactly, does a Master of the Plant do?  It’s pretty simple. When the machinery stops and doesn’t make electricity, he restarts it.  If that doesn’t work, he fixes the machinery.  And if THAT doesn’t work, he sends a telegraphic message to Con Ed which eventually does… something.

Liam is the author of the question “Who put the con in Con Ed?”  He had, he said, plenty of time to think up stuff like that because he had the soul of a poet and most of his time on the job was spent reading the Echo newspaper which carried stories from Ireland and with lifting weights which made him look like a weightlifter.

Back in Liam’s day, you asked him “what do you do for a living?” he’d answer “I make electricity for you.” And he was able to say with some pride that making electricity was a noble and useful occupation and working for Con Ed was a noble position.  

After some help from the deregulation crazies, utility companies can be either a supplier, a transporter or both.

Back then, the job of a utility was making things work. Today, that stuff is a sideline.  Today, the job of a utility is hunting for another utility to buy or to be bought by.  Second on the list is protecting the stock price and overpaying executives who wouldn’t know 110 volts from a banana split. Third: they still generate power because they have yet to figure out how to be an electric company without the fuss, muss and bother of actually making electricity.  But fear not, even now, and even without the help of Tom Edison, they’re getting close to a solution.

Here’s how:  by conducting wars in the stock market and the board room.  Regular readers are aware of my maxim: When the real game is at the conference table, the team on the field can’t win.

The suits are so busy writing their separation agreements, unloading or loading up on stock options and inventing fairy tales about how anti competitive practices benefit the customer (or the school children or the hockey game) that they don’t pay attention to when Joe and Josephine come home, flip up the light switch and nothing happens.

But the day is near when Con Ed, LIPA, Dominion Resources, First Energy, Florida Power and Light and Duke Energy all outsource their production to China and concentrate on what they really like to do: Shuffle paper that appears to increase profits, and cash their bonus checks while reducing the workforce by half… always a sure stock price booster.

I’m Wes Richards. My opinions are my own but you’re welcome to them. ®
Please address comments to wesrichards@gmail.com
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© WJR 2017
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