Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Why America's Power Grid Is Weathering the Heat Wave

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Why America's Power Grid Is Weathering the Heat Wave

Article excerpt

The heat wave has increased energy demand, but several factors, including energy efficiency, have helped ease the load on the system.

As temperatures soared across America, power grid operators and utilities called on all their energy sources - from jet-engine- powered natural-gas turbines to coal-burning behemoths to glowing nuclear reactors - to meet the electricity demand.

Right now, the massive mechanical equipment is doing its job well, with only pockets of energy distress during the heat wave.

Why are things going so smoothly?

A lot of it has to do with a weak economy that has left plenty of backup power available. The rapid growth of energy-efficiency measures is also responsible, as well as something called demand response - when commercial and industrial electricity users are throttled back by the use of computer-controlled switches and the Internet.

"We have definitely seen an impact from increased energy efficiency and demand-response efforts," says Mark Lauby, vice president of reliability assessment and performance analysis for the North American Electric Reliability Corp. (NERC), an organization tasked with ensuring that the nation's power grid keeps running. "It's giving us more margin, more resources."

The recession had an impact on energy demand, as businesses closed or cut back operations. Nationwide, energy demand fell about four percentage points in 2009, before rebounding slightly in 2010. The net result has been a chunk of generating-capacity padding.

In Wisconsin, for example, the recession led to factory closings that chopped power demand from a 2006 peak. Yet this year, We Energies - a utility near Madison - completed new plants that were built in response to power shortages experienced during heat waves of the late 1990s, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Result: plenty of capacity and few problems meeting power demand in Wisconsin.

"We're actually seeing some of these regions hitting records in power demand now despite the impact that recession had," says Mike Wilczek, senior markets editor for Platts, an energy reporting company. "But if you erased the recession - and had the same increase in electricity-demand growth - the load from this heat would be far higher."

A heaping helping of energy efficiency is also making things run smoothly. At least 26 states have set mandatory energy-saving targets for their utilities, says the American Council for an Energy- Efficient Economy (ACEEE).

Nine states with programs just kicking in slashed their energy use by 1 percent last year alone, while California and Vermont, longtime leaders in the field, last year saved 10 percent of the energy they each would have otherwise used.

Average savings among states with significant programs is about 2 percent annually. That savings means not having to build scores of power plants, says Steven Nadel, ACEEE's executive director. …

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