Electric Utility Deregulation May Bring Innovation

September 03, 1997

ITHACA, N.Y. -- Twenty years ago, when the Public Utility Regulatory Policy Act (PURPA) was written and large central-station steam-turbine facilities were the best way to generate electricity, no one expected the technological development of the small-scale, super-efficient, combined-cycle gas turbines that independent power producers and many utilities use today.

Now that deregulation is increasing competition in the power generation part of the electric utility industry and is beginning to offer consumers a choice through their local distribution companies, innovation lightning could strike again, a Cornell University economist and engineer predicts. New technologies, new materials and a renewed notion of public service, according to Richard E. Schuler, could give consumers "corner store access" to competitive electricity, communications, entertainment and information services -- all in one super cable.

Schuler, who is a Cornell professor of economics and of civil and environmental engineering as well as the director of the Cornell Institute for Public Affairs, made his prediction to the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE). Speaking June 11 in Washington, D.C., to an IEEE Technology Policy Council symposium, Schuler envisioned "a far richer variety of business types and forms" and "a broader diversity of commercial and technological innovation" as electric utility deregulation reaches the consumer interface.

Unregulated competition for utility customers is nothing new, noted Schuler, who served as a member of the New York State Public Service Commission from 1981 to 1983. There were once 373 independent electric systems in New York state -- and eight separate electric utilities serving New York City -- many vying for each other's customers at their service borders, he recalled. But technological advances in generation and electric transmission equipment allowed the amalgamation of small entities into the mega-systems that may one again be realigned in response to competition.

"It is the unimagined innovations that offer the greatest potential social rewards from a transition to markets," Schuler told the IEEE council symposium. "One hint of possible opportunities is the unforeseen technological response in the U.S. to the enactment of PURPA. By providing manufacturers with a steady market for small combustion turbines, a technology that had been on the drawing board for over 50 years, the combined-cycle gas turbine was brought to commercial fruition. The result today is a generating technology with lower capital costs and greater thermal efficiencies than the state-of-the-art, large central station steam turbine facility of 20 years ago."

Schuler said he dreads as much as the next consumer the annoying dinner-time calls from telemarketers trying to get him to switch his electricity supplier. Yet the "local wires" level of utilities may be the place to watch for unimagined innovation, Schuler said. If individual local telephone, cable television, electricity and Internet access companies were allowed to package and sell all once-separated services, perhaps scale economies would lower the cost of maintenance, metering and billing, he suggested.

While this new local super-monopoly might remain regulated, it would act as a "corner store" offering consumers a wide competitive array of communication, information and energy services. This new institution could prompt development of new materials that combine conductors for all these services in one multi-talented line, Schuler predicted. And of course, new materials will require new methods for installing and maintaining all that conduit, but the economist-engineer isn't going too far out on the limb.

"Under a competitive scenario, it is important to resist predictions about the future shape of the delivery systems," he said. "Competition leads to technological innovations in very unpredictable ways."


EDITORS: Prof. Schuler's report to the IEEE council, "Deregulating Electricity Markets: Why are We Pulling the Plug? How And for Whom?" is available from the Cornell News Service at (607) 255-9736 or cunews@cornell.edu.

Cornell University

Related Electricity Articles from Brightsurf:

Mirror-like photovoltaics get more electricity out of heat
New heat-harnessing 'solar' cells that reflect 99% of the energy they can't convert to electricity could help bring down the price of storing renewable energy as heat, as well as harvesting waste heat from exhaust pipes and chimneys.

Engineers use electricity to clean up toxic water
Powerful electrochemical process destroys water contaminants, such as pesticides. Wastewater is a significant environment issue.

Considering health when switching to cleaner electricity
Power plants that burn coal and other fossil fuels emit not only planet-warming carbon dioxide, but also pollutants linked to breathing problems and premature death.

Windows will soon generate electricity, following solar cell breakthrough
Semi-transparent solar cells that can be incorporated into window glass are a 'game-changer' that could transform architecture, urban planning and electricity generation, Australian scientists say in a paper in Nano Energy.

Static electricity as strong as lightening can be saved in a battery
Prof. Dong Sung Kim and his joint research team presented a new technology that can increase the amount of power generated by a triboelectric nanogenerator.

To make amino acids, just add electricity
By finding the right combination of abundantly available starting materials and catalyst, Kyushu University researchers were able to synthesize amino acids with high efficiency through a reaction driven by electricity.

Using renewable electricity for industrial hydrogenation reactions
The University of Pittsburgh's James McKone's research on using renewable electricity for industrial hydrogenation reactions is featured in the Journal of Materials Chemistry A's Emerging Investigators special issue.

Water + air + electricity = hydrogen peroxide
A reactor developed by Rice University engineers produces pure hydrogen peroxide solutions from water, air and energy.

Producing electricity at estuaries using light and osmosis
Researchers at EPFL are working on a technology to exploit osmotic energy -- a source of power that's naturally available at estuaries, where fresh water comes into contact with seawater.

Experimental device generates electricity from the coldness of the universe
A drawback of solar panels is that they require sunlight to generate electricity.

Read More: Electricity News and Electricity Current Events
Brightsurf.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.