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Taking the grid for granted

There's nothing like yanking away electricity from the most populated corner of North America to get peoples' attention. On Aug. 14, 50 million people in and around New York, Detroit, Cleveland, Ottowa, and Toronto were plunged back to the pre-Industrial age when the Northeast U.S. power grid collapsed.

As I write this it's still early (Aug. 18), and although electrical power has been mostly restored to the affected cities, the inevitable blame-assessment and finger-pointing has only just begun-followed quickly, hopefully, by some corrective action to prevent such a blackout from occuring again.

Taking one step back, however, I can't help but marvel at how dependent we are on the supply of electricity to our homes and businesses. Further, it appears we take that dependence for granted. This isn't really news because we take a lot of things for granted that we consume every day: clean air and water, plentiful power, available food, and transportation utilities (roads, highways, trains, planes, etc.). To an extent, we have to assume that these things are readily available-we simply aren't programmed to worry about the electrical power grid every time we turn on a light or put bread in the toaster.

But when one of those things we take for granted is lost, even momentarily, we realize to our shock and horror how limited out ability to function becomes. Computers, computer networks, servers, fax machines, copiers, televisions, radios, mobile phones, telephones, air conditioners, elevators, subways, electric trains, refrigerators, stoplights, and streetlights suddenly became unavailable and useless.

On a domestic scale, the loss of power is inconvenient and bothersome, but it is not insurmountable. In our homes we can cope and adjust and proceed with a somewhat normal life.

But for injection molders, extruders, blowmolders, moldmakers, and other plastics industry processors, (and other manufacturers, for that matter) that power grid is a critical and necessary part of the business venture. It's a vital ingredient in the effort to generate product, and therefore revenue. It's a simple equation: No power, no parts, no money.

A sophisticated processor with the financial ability to do so will install a backup power generator for such occasions. But most processors, it's fair to say, don't have such backup systems. Instead they must hope and pray that the coveted power grid is as robust as they assume it is when they flip that switch on the machine every morning.

This faith is sorely tested with a blackout like the one that hit the U.S. And it doesn't stop at the U.S. border (ask any Canadian). The electrical supply system in the U.S.-despite its apparent limitations-is among the most sophisticated and robust in the world. Processors around the world must also question their power systems now.

To that end, MP/MPI is embarking on a project to assess the energy supply and demand issues facing plastics processors around the world. Look for the report next month in the October issue, covering North America, Europe, Asia, and South America. Until then, I'd like to know what your thoughts are on energy and energy supply. My e-mail is below.

[email protected]

TAGS: Business
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