California's recent energy woes should be a wake-up call to business leaders and strategists across the nation, says a recently convened CIO Insight Roundtable of energy and technology experts. While the rest of the country, they say, appears to be in better shape than California, some ominous clouds are already gathering. Supplies in several regions, including New York City, are tight. Prices remain stubbornly high in some areas, affecting businesses and consumers. In certain Marriott and Hilton hotels, for example, guests are being slapped with energy surcharges of between $3 and $10 per night on top of their regular room rates. Some businesses, meanwhile, are facing sharp price hikes over last year. A severe heat wave in the Midwest or along the Eastern Seaboard this summer could push those parts of the country into their own power crunch. The breakdown of a few big power plants in one region could cause the lights to flicker in nearly a dozen states.

Whole chunks of the country, in other words, are "walking a tightrope" between scant sufficiency and outright shortages, says Professor Roger Anderson of Columbia University's Energy Research Center. It's time, experts say, for business and government to come to grips with the gap between the growing power demands of the Digital Economy and the limits of the nation's decades-old energy grid. But no single player in the chaotic world of energy industry deregulation has either the financial incentive or the political clout to upgrade the lines alone.

Developments in networking technology will help fix things, says energy expert Stephen Gehl—but not for years. Gehl envisions a day when the grid is fully automated and tied to Net-based systems that automatically regulate consumption and pricing based on real-time spikes in demand. But the way we transmit power must be fixed first, say roundtable participants. What's needed? Leadership to bring about change—now, before more lights go out and more computers crash.

To discuss the current state of the nation's energy system and the lessons learned from the California crisis, CIO Insight's Executive Editor Marcia Stepanek convened a panel of eight IT and energy scholars, CIOs and consultants. The panelists exchanged views on June 15 in a meeting at the magazine's Manhattan office. If you would like to read the extended version of roundtable, click here. Following are excerpts from the conversation.

This article was originally published on 07-01-2001
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