If you were living anywhere in the Northeast in the summer of 2003, chances are you lost power on Aug. 14. Maybe you missed a favorite television show, lost your Internet connection, or simply couldn't recharge your cell phone. For an estimated 50 million people across eight states and one Canadian province, the blackout -- the biggest in North American history -- also meant commuting delays, canceled flights, and lost business. Together, the economic toll of the 24-hour meltdown has been estimated at more than $10 billion.
For Bob Galvin, the retired CEO of Motorola, that's unacceptable. Worse still, the 2003 blackout represents only a fraction of the costs of routine power outages across the nation in any given year, which could run as high as $150 billion. A system as unreliable as that is simply bad for business and a drag on U.S. competitiveness, he says.
At 85, Galvin says he still "calls the shots" at the Galvin Electricity Initiative, a non-profit research and development group founded two years after the blackout to channel his decades of corporate experience into creating the perfect electrical system -- something he expects will spur entrepreneurship in the years ahead as smaller, innovative firms come forward to fill in the technological gaps.
"It's not a function of age so much as a function of wealth," Galvin says of launching such an ambitious venture well into his 80s. "Though, I had to live long enough to be able to make a contribution without worrying about losing my investment," he adds. Besides, he doesn't believe anyone could have raised private-sector capital or even a business loan for what he's doing now. "It's just too theoretical," he says.
The initiative -- one of several similar infrastructure projects Galvin has taken on in recent years, which also include wiping out big-city traffic gridlock -- is seeking to reinvent electricity distribution for the 21st century by replacing the nation's massive, multi-state analog system with a series of smart "micro-grids." Coming from someone else, the dizzying grandeur of the project and the seismic changes it would require in policy and industrial culture could seem like an eccentric millionaire's pipedream -- up there with Howard Hughes's Spruce Goose or Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic.
But age offers an advantage for Galvin in that it's secured a long and impressive track record of anticipating society's needs and creating well-run businesses to fulfill them. In his 30-year tenure as CEO of Motorola -- he took over from his father in 1956 -- Galvin oversaw a series of both corporate and cultural transformations (and boosted the company's revenue from $216 million to $6.7 billion along the way). Under his watch, Motorola introduced one of the first commercial color television sets in the early 1960s. To take on rising competition from Japanese consumer electronics firms, he established the industry standard Six-Sigma quality management program. And, of course, there's the development of the cell phone, which ushered in the wireless era and is now poised to wipe out outmoded analog telephone lines altogether.
Likewise, Galvin, who retired as Motorola's CEO in 1986, expects consumers will start demanding much higher standards from power suppliers, the way they already do for countless other goods and services deemed essential for day-to-day life. And his personal commitment to the issue is attracting some of the best and brightest minds in the power industry.
Through the Galvin Initiative, a prototype micro-grid is already being designed to meet the needs of the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago, supplying power for everything from dormitory lights to computer labs and digital equipment. Early cost-benefit analyses show the system will eventually pay for itself, as the campus becomes a far more efficient electricity consumer.
"For people who say this idea won't work or is too impractical, I can tell them, 'Well, that's a very interesting position, but I'm going to put my money into it and do it anyway," Galvin laughs. "That's not something I could have said years ago."
It's a luxury, he says, that comes with age.