Why September Marks the New Year

While the New Year officially begins Jan. 1, in my mind, the year really begins the day after Labor Day. That’s when the schools go back in session after summer break, when the weather actually begins to perceptively change into a new season, when football season resumes, and when official Washington again takes up its never-ending, seldom-succeeding task of pushing the policy boulder up the hill.

So Labor Day marks an important date in the calendar (although we in the U.S. celebrate it four months later than much of the rest of the world, for reasons having to do with right-vs.-left politics of the late 19th century). Ironically, Labor Day generally means the resumption of labor after summer vacations.

Labor Day honors the considerable achievements of the labor movement, starting with the eight-hour day. Ask most companies what their most important resource is, and they will say, “people.” Often, they don’t really mean that, given that they devote more resources and attention on inanimate items. But that’s for another day.

Over the centuries, managing the work force—once called “personnel management,” the term is now “human resources”—has evolved dramatically. To me, we seem to have moved from a Hobbesian endeavor (“a condition of war of everyone against everyone”) through Calvin & Hobbes (“Some days even my lucky rocketship underpants won’t help”) to today’s Dilbertian work environment (“Change is good. You go first.”)
In today’s work environment, employees are increasingly empowered to protect themselves against discrimination and predation by employers. That’s a good thing. It brings with it, a result of laws, litigation, and general business practice, a need for management to step very carefully when dealing with disgruntled employees, particularly when they have made some sort of formal filing that requires action or adjudication.

This issue of MANAGING POWER contains advice from a leading law firm that specializes in human resource law. It’s eye-opening and warns employers just how important, and dangerous, handling whistleblowers and disgruntled employees who may file actions against the employer. If I were a human resources manager today, I’d have nightmares if I had to deal with an employee charging my company with violating the law.

This issue also examines two items that have been on front pages and evening broadcasts recently: cyber security and the developing push for a “smart” grid. The two are also connected, as the grid is part of the nation’s critical infrastructure that could be the target of cyber warfare.
As some of you may know, I’m skeptical about the smart grid, which is the latest new big thing in the power business. I’ve been reading and hearing about how computer intelligence and networking can transform energy management and rationalize demand curves for decades. It has never come to pass.

The latest drive for a smart grid arises from the failure of the Internet-over-power lines fad. The transmission and distribution system was going to become a competitor in the highly competitive world of providing broadband services to homes and business. While technically feasible, it turned out that the competition could produce a less-expensive product. What to do? How about using the ability to communicate data over power lines to revive the idea of using information to control loads? Voila, the smart grid.

My fear is that spending time and money, really big money, on the smart grid impoverishes something I believe is more important: building a strong grid. Rather than toasters talking to generators, I’d prefer muscles. Big pipes, with a truly national high-voltage grid, make more sense to me if the societal goal is reliability.

But maybe the goal isn’t reliability. Maybe the goal is load shaping, which can lead to a better financial bottom line for the utility selling power. That’s alright. I have no problems with profit. But to my way of thinking, as a national goal, reliability trumps load management.

Another concern, which the articles in this issue address, is the vulnerability that an interconnected smart grid introduces into our transmission and distribution system. The smarter the grid, the more open it is to outside attack. Planners and policymakers understand this and are spending lots of brain power and piling up frequent flier miles talking about it.

In the meantime, the strong grid languishes, still caught in the fundamental tension between federal and state authorities, with a dollop of NIMBYism for extra flavor. The 2005 Energy Policy Act, which on the surface purported to give Uncle Sam the chops to override states that have been dragging their feet on approving transmission lines that cross state lines, has failed. There are so many errors and omissions in the law that it leaves the national interest toothless.

But I suspect there is no interest in Congress in taking up this contentious issue again, going on six years later. There will be no energy legislation that passes the 111th Congress; the beguiling vision of the smart grid will persist. Call it gridlock, and happy New Year.

—Kennedy Maize is MANAGING POWER’s executive editor.

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