Spencer, Peter, Consumers' Research Magazine
Last summer, during a particularly intense heat wave, Commonwealth Edison, the utility supplying electricity to Chicago, knew it was going to experience record demand for power. But it did not tap into a ready source of electricity that could have reduced demand on its electric grid, avoiding the toasted lines and blackouts that resulted--and likely even have saved lives.
Throughout Chicago and in many urban areas that suffer power failures during heat waves, generators exist that reduce loads on the electric system and keep everything running. Yet a combination of outdated state regulations and entrenched utility practices effectively prevents these mini-power plants from coming on line in time to help.
"There is ample power available," according to Thomas R. Casten, CEO of Trigen Energy Corp. "Under present rules," he said in a letter to congressional and regulatory officials last summer, "the emergency generators in hospitals, hotels, apartment and office buildings and most government facilities are not allowed to provide power during high-use periods. Old rules, based on the limits of 1940s technology, prevent emergency generators from being connected to the electric grid. These generators can operate only by interrupting power to the entire facility, then restarting and supplying power."
Moreover, since the generators cannot connect to the electric grid, facilities cannot use them as supplemental power sources to help protect electricity-dependent operations--lest they disconnect from the electric grid entirely (which some companies now do). Absent current rules, all that would be necessary to provide such extra power--and improve system reliability and reduce risk of power failures overall--are "only simple wiring and control changes," Casten notes.
The tough part, however, is changing policies that allow for and encourage these simple fixes. Despite all the effort to open up retail electricity markets to competition, the vast infrastructure for delivering power (the transmission lines and distribution wires making up electric grids) remains in the control of monopoly franchises created and protected by state laws. These monopolies--your local power company is one--determine the "hook up" policies and traditionally impose economic and technical barriers to supplemental suppliers, such as those emergency generators. So even as technological innovations and opportunities for alternative (and competitive) generation and delivery of power emerge, barriers created by the regulatory regime hamper development of the electric system. …