Global Dynamics Confronting the United States Electrical Industry

Global Dynamics Confronting the United States Electrical Industry

One thing about which fish know exactly nothing is water, since they have no anti-environment which would enable them to perceive the element they live in.” ― Marshall McLuhan, War & Peace in the Global Village (1968)

Joel Solis, Conformity Assessment Manager, NEMA

Today, there are two predominate types of power transmission and distribution systems that serve as the foundation of systems used throughout the developed world, i.e. the North American and European system. Visually distinguishing between the two is difficult since both systems are comprised of similar components and technology such as poles, transformers, conductors, etc. There are big differences and they affect electrical equipment design, installation practices, transmission frequency, phase, distribution voltage level, receptacle type and grounding system.

The U.S. electrical industry engages in self-regulation through voluntary efforts to develop electrotechnical safety standards and installation codes.  Much of the electrotechnical safety work is undertaken by Underwriters Laboratories (UL). Its Standards panels are made up of representatives from authorities having public safety responsibilities, electrical shock experts, electrical fire experts, casualty experts, and electrical manufacturers. The same can be said regarding installation code work undertaken by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA).  Following the signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the U.S. electrical industry extended the model of voluntary collaboration to its counterparts in Canada and Mexico.  Regional cooperation efforts, as difficult as it is to achieve, are not recognized as international standardization by the World Trade Organization, placing North America at a disadvantage globally.

In 1985, Europe implemented its “New Approach” of adopting legislation (EU Directives) that defines essential requirements in relation to safety. The EU relies on the European Commission to issue standardization mandates to its European Standardization Organization, i.e., CENELECT. An ambition of CENELEC is to shape internationalization by promulgating EU standards as International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) standards. The EU is the only market to have a technical cooperation agreement with IEC. The EU policy, known as “primacy of international standardization”, is to closely link EU and IEC standards in order to provide a competitive advantage for EU electrical industry. The policy is embedded in the EU’s 36 trade agreements with non-EU countries which seeks to require IEC standards be followed.

The U.S. electrical safety system has limited success in being incorporated into the IEC standards. As an example, U.S. wire gauge “AWG” and kcmil conductor sizes, fundamental to the North American electrical system, are not recognized cables in IEC 60228, Conductors of Insulated Cables, a fundamental building block to IEC cable product standards. According to IEC Technical Committee 20 (TC 20), Electrical Cables, “…the inclusion of non-metric cables would be a backward step.” The view, while divorced of a rational safety argument, is only understandable when given the country makeup of TC 20 is dominated by EU member countries bounded tightly together by a common market. To make matters worse, the principles for international standardizing bodies codified in the World Trade Organization Agreement on Technical Barriers to Trade fails to incorporate antitrust provisions aimed at avoiding even the appearance of one’s members taking common action that might unreasonably restrict competition.

The growing urbanization in Asia and Africa offers enormous opportunities to those having a sense of urgency to get policy, and specifically standardization, right in the near term. But for the industry to have greater global access, it must consider taking fundamental action in one of two approaches—demanding greater incorporation of the North American electrical system requirements into IEC standards and/or propose policy which supports the designation of North American regional standards as international standards.  Unlike Marshall McLuhan saying that a fish knows nothing of water since it has no alternate environment to enable it to perceive the water it lives in, the U.S. electrical industry needs to decide on how best to bridge the differing environments in which it operates to promulgate standards to best shape internationalization.

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