Community Engagement

Independence Day

I am chagrined to admit that, despite having lived in the D.C.-area since before my kids were born, my husband and I have never taken them to see the fireworks on the National Mall in D.C.!  In our defense, they have seen other fireworks — a mountaintop in Wintergreen, VA, was the most memorable — but still.  We’ve avoided going because of the crowds, difficult logistics (since 9/11, it is hard to do, much less since the pandemic), the heat, etc.

Even more egregious is the fact that, for the Fourth of July in my second year in D.C. (ahem) in 1994, I sat on the House Appropriations Committee’s veranda in the U.S. Capitol and watched the fireworks from, arguably, the best place you could watch them.  Subsequently, when my husband and I were dating, we had a friend who was a commissioner at the Federal Trade Commission, and he would reserve the top floor of the building for viewing the fireworks. Bottom line: we got spoiled early on and have taken the proximity to the event for granted – perhaps to the detriment of our kids, who have not experienced the grandeur of what we’ve seen.

According to an article by Elizabeth Yuko in “on July 3, 1776 — prior to the signing of the Declaration of Independence, let alone the colonies actually achieving independence from Great Britain — John Adams provided written instructions for how future Independence Days should be celebrated:

"Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forever more.

"One year and one day later, the first official Fourth of July fireworks display took place over the city of Philadelphia, with Boston following in 1777 — despite the fact that the Revolutionary War was still underway, and American independence wasn’t a foregone conclusion.

"By 1783, fireworks had become available to the general public, further cementing the Independence Day tradition.” 

In 1941, the Fourth of July was made a national holiday, and in 1947, the fireworks on the National Mall were televised for the first time.

In researching this history, it struck me that I had it wrong.  While certainly the fireworks at the National Mall are impressive and moving, especially with the backdrop of the Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial, they aren’t where Independence Day celebrations began. They began even before our country become independent, just with the hope of independence. The celebrations began in communities, large and small, across the colonies, and continued as those colonies became states and others were added until we had 50. The national gathering came much later.

Similarly, the evolution of our power grids  there is no single “grid,” even to this day  began exclusively in towns and cities back in the 1880s. They were originally islands unto themselves, but then banded together over time and created economies of scale in so doing.  Given that history, it is no wonder that the close to 3,000 electric utilities in the country  2,000 of them public power – are unique. Public power utilities, in particular, are outgrowths of their communities  the geographies, demographics, economic focus, and other distinctive qualities specific to those places.

The federal government’s role in financially regulating the interstate aspects of these grids came later. The local and state roles were earlier and continue at the retail level. Even to this day, the operational aspects of running these disparate, yet interconnected, systems fall exclusively on the utilities themselves.  However, increasingly, the risks of delivering power in a world where our global adversaries can use supply chain constraints, cyber-attacks, and other tactics to disrupt our operations from afar require us to work with the federal government in a strategic way to mitigate risk and respond to threats.

As we address numerous risks back-to-back or at the same time (the pandemic, weather events, cyber threats, supply chain constraints, etc.), it’s important for us to remember the evolution of our industry.  The bespoke nature of our grids has, arguably, deterred our adversaries because of the lack of standardization and, in turn, the difficulty in causing a single point of failure. This customized approach can cause some level of challenge when it comes to our ability to share certain types of equipment, however. As we work with the federal government to address the current supply chain shortages of key grid components, such as transformers, we must weigh any discussion of standardization against the known benefits of customization.

Just like in the Independence Day celebrations that have occurred in communities for close to 250 years where “Shews, Games, Sports…and Illuminations” are common  but the specific events vary widely  our utilities share common goals, basic operational similarities, and the laws of physics. But local utilities configure their systems to meet the needs of their communities.

Maybe my husband and I will refocus on Fourth of July fireworks and celebrations outside of D.C. in wonderfully unique American towns, while still acknowledging the need for a national gathering as glorious as the one each year on the National Mall. And, okay, we will definitely attend that event again at some point with our girls.