When the lights flicker and dim, people understandably are quick to call for construction of new powerplants to generate the electricity they need. And since 1997, the U.S. electric generation plant base has enjoyed a boom unlike any since the 1980s. Last December, Engineering News-Record and The McGraw-Hill Cos.' Power magazine, collaborated to explore that boom and its significance for engineers, constructors and plant owner-operators (ENR 12/3/01).
Powerplants are only the starring characters of a drama that requires the supporting cast of fuel supply and transmission lines to achieve its full impact. As powerplant construction has grown to meet demand for new capacity, longstanding transmission pinchpoints have become serious threats to system reliability and new bottlenecks have become apparent. At the same time, pipeline construction has proceeded at a feverish pace to deliver the natural gas needed to fuel all but a tiny proportion of the new crop of generation plants.
Transmission construction remains a player in the wings, waiting its cue. But engineers and contractors are adding staff and bringing equipment out of mothballs in anticipation of a boom in new line construction. Pipeline construction is now in a momentary pause because of the Enron debacle but firms serving that market foresee a turnaround. The following report looks at issues facing delivery of fuel sources and the transmission of electricity.
New Energy Flowing to High-Voltage Lines
Sleepy sector of industry in turmoil awakens to growing opportunities
Rip Van Winkle has nothing on the U.S. electric-transmission industry, which has slept for nearly two decades while market restructuring changed the world around it. Now, it's waking up after years of underinvestment, and engineers and constructors are scrambling to prepare for new construction on a scale not seen since the 1970s.
Many see the demand coming, but they hesitate to say when it will hit. Few utilities are building more than "Band-Aid-type projects," says Abraham Pichardo, a high-voltage specialist recently hired by Edwards & Kelcey Inc., Morristown, N.J., in anticipation of the boom. "The business has been a little slow," but that could change "suddenly," he adds.
"There will be a sizable volume in the next five years," agrees Michael Cooper, Laverne, Calif.-based regional manager for MYR Group Inc. He expects serious shortages of skilled labor and notes that the industry's culture also has changed. Where once whole families moved with the crews from project to project, "those crews have since been dispersed," he says. He doubts families today will do that