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Op-Ed Submission: The Greatest Invention of All Time, by Timothy S. Carey

Tim Koranda


October 19, 2006

 Some years ago, a national poll asked people what they thought was the greatest invention of all time.  Their overwhelming response was electricity.  And as I thought about it then – and even more so now – I realized that electric power is a kind of axis around which the modern world turns.

The 8-day-blackout in July in the New York City borough of Queens underscored this notion. Nearly 100,000 residents were forced to endure one of the hottest weeks on record without air conditioning or refrigeration.  Businesses, large and small closed.  The Red Cross was called in.  The Fire Department distributed dry ice.    An army of police turned out to direct traffic as the traffic lights were out, along with all the other lights. 

Governor Pataki and Mayor Bloomberg monitored the situation closely as the city's emergency management officials got into the trenches with utility workers to troubleshoot the problems.  When the problems persisted, Con Edison pledged to reimburse residents up to $7,000 for spoiled food and other damage.

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 disaster looms. 

Timothy S. Carey is the President and Chief Executive Officer of the New York Power Authority.

About NYPA:

■    NYPA uses no tax money or state credit.  It finances its operations through the sale of bonds and revenues earned in large part through sales of electricity.  ■    NYPA is a leader in promoting energy-efficiency, new energy technologies and electric transportation initiatives.  ■    It is the nation’s largest state-owned electric utility, with 18 generating facilities in various parts of the state and more than 1,400 circuit-miles of transmission lines.

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