The Summer of Blackouts May Not Be over as Hot Weather Saps Electrical Supplies, Utilities Look for New Ways to Meet Demand

By Ron Scherer, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, July 23, 1999 | Go to article overview

The Summer of Blackouts May Not Be over as Hot Weather Saps Electrical Supplies, Utilities Look for New Ways to Meet Demand


Ron Scherer, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


Steven Shapiro is not looking forward to the next heat wave. He owns an Upper Manhattan apartment complex where 50 families recently lost their electricity when New York's Consolidated Edison blacked out almost 300,000 people for up to 30 hours.

"There was no security, everything was completely pitch black," recalls Mr. Shapiro. "I had to get a 96-year-old woman to the hospital - she couldn't breathe." He says he's leery of the weather for the rest of the summer.

The same could be said for many utilities in the US. July and August are often the peak months for electric demand, and the nation's utilities are hoping to get through the next several weeks without any more days of curtailing power.

Already, some utilities on the East Coast have used rolling black outs when transmission lines could not keep up with demand. And to keep consumers' air conditioners running, they are also pulling old, mothballed generating units back into service and buying power from "energy brokers." To save power and set an example, companies are even turning off their own hall lights.

Even so, although some areas of the country could have tight energy supplies, experts don't expect to see large-scale blackouts for the rest of the summer.

"Whether we have problems depends on Mother Nature and how hot she makes the temperatures climb, and it's impossible to predict where that will happen," says Gene Gorzelnik, a spokesman for the North American Electric Reliability Council (NERC), a utility industry group based in Princeton, N.J.

New capacity

For the long term, however, the industry is trying to find new ways to increase its shrinking reserve capacity - the amount of power it can supply over its normal baseload. In the 1980s, after a lot of nuclear plants came on stream, the capacity margin expanded to 25 percent. Today, according to the Edison Electric Institute, it's down to about 13.4 percent as a result of economic growth and the closure of older power plants.

Low capacity margins have also affected utility rates. Last year prices spiked to as high as $7,500 per kilowatt hour compared to a normal price of $30 per kilowatt hour. This summer utilities have paid as much as $1,000 per kilowatt hour to keep their customers cool.

Earlier this year, NERC predicted there could be problems in the Southwest if a severe heat wave develops. Electrical supplies were expected to be adequate but tight in the Midwest, Southeast and New England. Total electrical demand this summer is expected to be below the record levels of last summer, when a severe heat wave, combined with equipment problems, blacked out portions of the Midwest

"There is a fairly general need for new capacity across the country," says David Wagman of Energy Insight, a Colorado firm that monitors utilities. …

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