In Praise of Utilities

Highline workers and helicopter -- an example of utility workers doing dangerous, highly specialized work (photo courtesy of Dominion from CorporateHistory.net's book "Dominion's First Century: A Legacy of Service")

Electric, gas, water. We take them for granted until something goes wrong: an outage, a lack of heat, a boil-water mandate. Recent weather extremes in Texas put utilities into a harsh spotlight. But the problem wasn’t the providers; it was the unregulated market and the lack of connection (by state choice) to the regional and ultimately the national power grid. The CorporateHistory.net team cares about setting the record straight because we’ve been privileged to write and/or produce the histories of major utilities including Public Service Gas & Electric and American Water, both based in NJ but operating more widely, Dominion in the southeastern US, State Compensation Fund of California, and AEGIS. The latter two aren’t utility or energy companies but insurers of them.

Texas’s woes are complex, but one strand is the persistence of deregulation. It was all the rage starting in the Reagan era and persisting into the 1990s, when a company called Enron—remember it?—treated energy foremost as a commodity to be traded. Enron imploded in 2001, but bits of deregulation wreckage still remain—many of them in Texas.

In the course of writing and producing our clients’ books and websites, we’ve interviewed more than 300 utility executives, managers, and workers, many of them unionized. They’re the folks who work 24/7 when things go wrong. We still remember a newspaper column by author Ann Rinaldi in response to criticism of PSE&G, when Hurricane Gloria cut off power to 14% of the company’s customers. A writer accused PSE&G of playing a “waiting game.” Ann knew differently, because her husband Ron was a PSE&G grade-one lineman. “Ron went in at 4 a.m. Friday morning, the day Hurricane Gloria hit. He worked all day in the storm, soaking wet, repairing lines. When the rest of us make a mistake, we correct it immediately. If Ron and the other lineworkers at Public Service make a mistake on the job, they don’t get a second chance. It could mean their death,” Ann explained. That scenario has been repeated countless times in the 35 years since Hurricane Gloria. Regardless of any individual utility’s name, that’s what public service really means.