2007-04-25 / Editorials

Op-ed

The Greatest Invention Of All Time
BY TIMOTHY S. CAREY

New Yorkers will long remember last summer's protracted outage which left 100,000 Astoria residents without power. To avoid a repeat performance, the local utility invested $90 million in repairs and upgrades in the area and is planning another $1.4 billion in investment this year to upgrade and buttress its overall electric delivery system.

The eight-day-blackout, coinciding, with one of the hottest weeks on record, reinforced the findings of a poll conducted by USA Today more than 15 years ago. When asked what was the greatest invention of all time, readers responded overwhelmingly, "electricity".

It is worth noting that in the not-so-distant past, electricity was a novelty. In 1886, the first appearance of electric lighting in a New York shop window was described by a newspaper editor of the day as "a mere experiment, the continuation of which would soon prove more trouble that it was worth, and the neighboring stores took no stock in it".

It took the better part of 40 years for American business to fully integrate electricity into its operations. At the start, businesses did little more than replace their steam engines and water wheels with electric dynamos. But by the 1920s, manufacturers were re-engineering their factories to accommodate the vast quantity of work that could be performed with this new power source.

Electricity not only allowed for more accurate energy controls, its mere availability determined, in large part, what manufacturers made. In short order, tools as well as consumer goods came equipped with a wire and a plug. The new electronic gadgets fueled a still greater demand for power and the economy grew as never before.

Certainly, there's a parallel between the current growth in productivity that's being driven by the computer and the Internet and the earlier boom that was also powered by electricity.

Still, it's worth noting that electricity generation represents less than two percent of the nation's economy by way of revenues, smaller than almost any other major sector. And yet the other 98 percent of the economy could not operate without it.

We tend not to think much about that until the lights go out, the computer shuts down, the air conditioner fails, the food starts spoiling in the refrigerator and a veritable disaster looms.

Timothy S. Carey is the president and chief executive officer of the New York Power Authority.

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