In the United States, utility companies either provide electric, natural gas, or water service to customers. The companies are either for-profit companies, some of which are large public corporations, or public utility companies owned by a city or community. In large rural areas of the United States, rural cooperatives provide the same service as utility companies in cities. The primary difference between a cooperative and other forms of companies is that a cooperative is owned by its members, who are the customers. The customers then have more of a voice when it comes to decision-making.
Before the Energy Policy Act of 1992, each utility company served its own, well-defined market. Service region boundaries were clearly defined by the public utility commissions. This is still mainly true today, but the Energy Policy Act opened the way for companies to build and maintain power generating companies anywhere in the United States rather than be confined to their service area. This part of the Act was designed to increase competition among producers, as well as increase the amount of power being generated. After the Act, the company could build and operate a power plant on the West Coast of the United States, providing it made sound business sense and regardless of where its customers were located. This enabled some companies to become wholesale energy brokers on a broad scale and sell power to other energy companies as well as directly to individual customers.
Much like the electric utility companies, natural gas companies also became deregulated in the 1980s and 1990s. In fact, natural gas became deregulated before electric utilities. While the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) took steps that led up to deregulation of the natural gas industry, two changes enacted proved to be the turning points for the industry. The first was the Natural Gas Wellhead Decontrol Act of 1989. The result of this Act was that gas prices at wellheads were no longer regulated, and could rise and fall with the market and demand. In 1992, FERC Order 636 required all natural gas companies to separate their gas transportation and sales services, so that consumers could have a choice of where to buy their gas. This allowed some companies to open and expand wholesale gas enterprises.
Water companies are most often regulated and run by local governments. In some parts of the country, water supplies are unreliable and government regulation closely manages use of water for residential purposes, as well as agricultural and industrial ones. Globally, about 10 percent of water utilities are run by private companies or mixed private-public partnerships, and an ongoing discussion in the water industry is the possibility of further privatization as a way to better manage limited supplies.
There are five key professions in the utility industry. First, the ability to meet demands as efficiently as possible means that engineers are vital to the industry. Engineers are responsible for maintaining existing service as well as engineering new services according to regulations and company standards. Second, since utility companies consist of several crews and operators, supervisors and managers are also key employees. Resources must be effectively utilized and projects and services must be completed on time and on budget. Good managers are critical employees for ensuring that this happens.
The third type of profession consists of the crews. Construction crews build new services to homes, business, developments, or even utility plants. Field service crews repair customers’ service lines, inspect new services, and perform similar services. Customer service representatives are also the backbone of the company, answering customers’ questions and assisting with all of the customers’ front office needs.
Meter readers walk from home to home or business, and read and record meter readings so that customers’ bills can be generated. The fourth type of profession in the utility industry consists of the power plant operators. These workers are on the production side, and they seldom, if ever, interact with customers. Finally, sales representatives or brokers are the professionals who find buyers for unused or excess gas or electric production or who broker energy deals between different buyers.
Workers are usually either union members, paid by the hour and subject to union rules and regulations, or nonunion employees, who are typically salaried personnel, and who work in professional capacities. There is sometimes tension between the two groups of workers.