When I was six or seven, believe it or not, I didn't aspire to become a utility engineer or even a utility reporter. I wanted to be a cowboy and live out on the range. I couldn't wait to hit the saddle and round up strays. With a six-shooter on my hip, I could fend off wolves or shoot rattlers. Eating from a chuck wagon and sleeping by a campfire sounded mighty fine. My childhood desire to be a cowboy hasn't come about, but still, the idea of hitting the trail appeals to me.

We've had cowboys out blazing new trails in our industry. Unfortunately, this past decade we in the regulated T&D industry didn't happen to be the trail blazers. No, we were left circling the wagons, fighting off repeated attacks, just trying to survive. We endured endless staff cuts and restructurings, while being told that competitors would corral us and steal our customers. Investing in a declining business had little appeal to our executives, so they listened as “drug store cowboys” offered to create new businesses to operate outside regulatory rule. These cowboys promised to generate the high returns Internet and telecom cowboys already were providing.

Then Reality Hit Hard

We all watched as energy trading, speculative generation and energy services subsidiaries went right over the cliff along with their Internet and telecom brethren. We found, in hindsight, that the slow-moving regulated utilities were actually the cash cows that provided these cowboys the resources they quickly blazed through on their path to destruction.

Now we are entering the decade of the regulated utility, and it is our turn to “blaze the trail.” Utilities today are focusing on infrastructure with an enthusiasm and a focus that's been missing for 20 years. Steady returns, good cash flow and actual dividends have a nice ring to investors' ears in today's improving but uncertain business climate. Building substations, setting poles and stringing wire are again investments in the future. Utilities are even hiring staff and complaining they can't find good people. Now that the threat of competition has subsided, it's time to work together to rebuild our long-neglected T&D infrastructure.

Head on Down to Texas

No one works well in a vacuum. We work best when we can share ideas and experiences. I've been working closely with Judd Putnam, an old T&D cowhand over at Oncor in Dallas, Texas, to promote the upcoming IEEE/PES T&D Exposition to be held Sept. 8-10, 2003, at the Dallas Convention Center. The theme of this event is “Blazing Trails in Energy Delivery and Services.” The Sunday kickoff event will be at Eddie Dean's Ranch where we'll actually get a chance to do some roping, so maybe I'll get a shot at being a cowboy after all.

This roundup is shaping up to be the biggest T&D event in 2003. Putnam, who is handling media duties for the show, is working hard to bring this all together. If you haven't been to this event before, it's hard to grasp just how massive it is. You'll find 500 exhibitors showing off the latest and greatest in products and services. I always love prowling the show floor, connecting with old friends, checking out new products, and trying out a hand tool or operating an energized switch. Don't you love the sound of contacts coming together?

Al Dirnberger, also with host utility Oncor, is general chair for the show. He and several hundred volunteers are busting it to make sure you enjoy all that Texas has to offer and to provide an opportunity for you to come together to listen, learn and share. When you register, you'll find a CD of the proceedings. Here's a trick. Register early and take the CD back to your room and skim the articles. Then attend the sessions that scratch your itch. Chat with the authors. They'll take it as a compliment that you took the time to review the paper.

IEEE also has put together 15 panel sessions to address critical topics in T&D. You will find a nice cross section of topics and experts. On the technical side, I like the poster sessions where you can ask in-depth questions of presenters working in your field. Dirnberger tells me there are 165 poster papers that cover the entire technical spectrum of T&D. Oh, yes, I almost forgot to mention the keynote speakers. How did IEEE convince Rep. Joe Barton, chairman of the House Energy and Air Quality subcommittee, to come and speak? It might be more than a coincidence that Barton represents Texas. Thomas Kuhn, president of EEI, and Alan Richardson, president and CEO of APPA, are also on the podium. These men say what they think and welcome controversy.

So hitch your travel budget to IEEE/PES T&D Conference & Expo and blaze a trail to Dallas. If you run into Putnam or Dirnberger, tell 'em howdy. They, along with the entire conference and exposition team, are eager to give you a great big Texas welcome. I'll see you there.