Letter to the Editor: What Happened to the Electric Utility Industry?


Dear Editor,

After reading the articles published in the local newspaper concerning our local coal fired power generating plants, I thought the people of Carbon County deserve to hear ‘the rest of the story’.

What has been and continues to surprise me is the condoning of an obvious unleveled playing field in the entire electric utility by the very companies who have been adversely affected by trends going back to the 1960’s and continues to this day, resulting in the ‘political correctness’ of these very companies. I refer to the undermining of the ‘Investor owned Electric Utilities’. One could also label this as the ‘Socialization’ of the electric utility industry.

While I cannot confirm or deny the same for the Natural gas industry, they have apparently escaped the fate of the electric power industry.

Back in the 50’s and 60’s many investor owned utilities were investor owned gas & electric companies and were under the control and regulation of a Public Service Commission. This was especially true with the larger utilities back east. Gradually this ceased to be the case and now days the two are mostly separate industries.

A comparison of the effect this has had on the general public and the rates we pay for energy will tell its own tale.

So what did happen to the electric utility industry? In a word; ‘Big Government’.

The first step was the advent of the large government generation agencies such as ‘TVA’ and ‘Bonneville Basin’ power generation agencies. Then came the ‘Municipal’ Power Companies such as Houston Power & Light, Kansas City Power & Light and a host of others large and small. They built and operated hydro and coal fired power plants with Gov. money and basically interest free loans.

In the meantime UP&L had to justify the cost and finance their own generation assets such as the Huntington & Hunter power plants.

Does this sound like a level playing field to you?

Taking the explanation back to our local level, UP&L was then ‘bought out by a series of ill-advised take overs and mergers, including PacifiCorp. Remember Scottish Power?

The culmination of this big fish eat little fish was when Warren Buffett and his conglomerate Berkshire Hathaway holding companies bought PacifiCorp and Rocky Mountain Power outright. All of this was, of course, ‘approved’ by our Utah Public Service Commission….remember them?? If ever a State Commission has slipped into a dysfunctional status they no doubt lead the parade.

So what does all this have to do with the circumstances and events we are being told of today? Simply this…..it is continuing to happen as of the recent story in the local newspaper.

Alternate energy sources? Lets see now; the solar industry has had several major companies with hundreds of millions of Federal loans themselves gone bankrupt. The industry continues to play in an unleveled playing field receiving taxpayer dollars to subsidize their operations and profits.

Wind power? PacifiCorp recently filed suit in Federal court to block the publication of the figures showing how many birds are killed every day and bats at night from wind turbines. This is especially true concerning migratory birds.

And again one must ask why do taxpayers foot the bill to subsidize an alternate energy source.

Natural gas power generation? For me this one is especially a joke. We have politicians that actually believe that gas fired power plants are not fossil fueled, i.e. Do not generate SO2, CO, NOx et all.

I will grant that the cycle efficiency is very good, in fact higher than that of coal fired plants. This performance parameter is measured by the amount of BTU’s in, Megawatts out.

However, a more realistic parameter is buss bar cost. This measures dollars in and Megawatts out. In other words, how much does it cost to make a megawatt of electrical power. The single biggest factor in this performance is fuel cost, i.e. Dollars / BTU. In this measurement coal is much cheaper per BTU than gas, hence the buss bar cost is much closer between the two fuels.

When you consider economy of scale, in other words 455 MW compared to perhaps 100 to 200 MW gas fired, coal remains attractive.

The newspaper article mentions that the coal plants are ‘saving the bacon’ on the grid due to their ‘spinning reserve. This means that the plants can go from half load to full load quickly, which is something that wind and solar cannot do, at least not as easily, and of course at night or no wind, not at all.

So it comes down to system reliability. When I came into the industry over 40 years ago the typical spinning reserve on the grid was around 20-30%.

When I asked a friend working at the dispatch center in SLC (now probably in Portland) he replied typically 2-3%.

Does this sound like a stable system to you? Do you think Government subsidy of Alternate energy is fair?

In the old days this was called Socialism, something America has been sliding into for 40 years now and not just the power industry.

This unleveled playing field has been destroying our economy since the advent of the term ‘Global Economy’.

In another rant I would be happy to show how this has destroyed our steel industry and the auto industry is next…. just ask GM & Chrysler.

In the meantime guess how China and India are supplying their growing economies. Yepper, they are building coal fired power plants… big ones, 1000 MW. Do you suppose they are also putting on SO2 scrubbers, bag houses, low NOx burners at all?

Perhaps we should be asking our policitians and power company executives that question, providing you believe their answer.

So who am I to present these issues to the people of Carbon/Emery County?

My name is John McCurdy. I moved to this area 40 years ago, shortly after the major accident at the Huntington power plant. When asked by the PSC and Insurance underwriters to show their training programs, UP&L replied ‘we don’t have one.’ They replied: ‘you do now’.

I was working for a major Instrument & Control vendor located in Cleveland, OH. I was teaching a class at Huntington Plant and was asked if I would re-locate and begin a 3-year apprentice program. I accepted and moved my family from Cleveland to Price.

I began the I&C apprentice training program. Mr. Wayne Crouse taught the Electrical program and Mr. Julius Spigarilli taught the Mechanical apprentices.

The success the plants in this area have enjoyed nationally is due to the people who operate, maintain, engineer and administer these exemplary generation recourses.

I am very proud to have been part of that team.


John H. McCurdy
I&C Coach / Instructor,

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