Brownouts Likely as Utilities near Limits Hot Spells Seen Straining Capacity

Article excerpt

WASHINGTON -- As this summer moves into its hottest months, federal officials and the power industry are keeping a watchful eye on the nation's electric grids and cautioning that a severe hot spell -- combined with possible supply problems -- could cause power outages in some parts of the country.

As the $220 billion electricity industry moves toward more competition, there are growing concerns that the power industry is running too close to the edge in providing electricity when it is most needed -- during peak summer demand.

Spurred on by the growing economy and increased reliance on computers and other electrical devices, electricity demand has been increasing 2 percent to 3 percent a year, while production has lagged. Meanwhile, the safety cushion has dropped to below 15 percent of generating capacity, far below the 25 percent of a decade ago.

Signs of problems have already shown up in some areas this summer.

For most of last week, California was under a "stage II power watch" in which customers were asked to keep down electricity use and power was withheld from some commercial users because of tight supplies as temperatures soared in the 100-degree range.

Although milder temperatures have eased the strain on the state's electricity system, Patrick Dorinson, a spokesman for the California Independent System Operator, which manages the state's flow of electricity, says the problem isn't over.

"Everything is on a day-to-day basis," he said. ". . . "We expect another heat wave next week."

The Energy Department and an industry-sponsored watchdog group -- the North American Electric Reliability Council -- says the Southwest, California and much of the Northeast, especially New York and New England -- face the greatest electricity reliability concerns this summer.

Others are not as certain either in New England or elsewhere.

The power problems that already surfaced in New England and California "could be an ominous sign," said Energy Secretary Bill Richardson, who has held a series of regional meetings on electric reliability issues. …