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.
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
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. …