The Big Chill
A winter fuel crisis of high prices and shortages could darken homes and factories
Neal Costello, a Boston lawyer who represents deregulated power plant operators, argues "the generators benefit, but so do others" from the system in which they sell to hospitals, schools, and businesses that otherwise would have no natural gas. In January 2004, he says, "the lights stayed on, and no one was cold; the market worked as it should have." However, he is quick to add that there is reason for alarm. "New England clearly has a looming energy crisis, not just this winter," due to overreliance on natural gas for electricity.
Unstable electricity in one region can cascade into another, as New York City learned in the eight-state blackout that began with an Ohio power company's mistakes in August 2003. The nation's largest city is vulnerable because it is an electricity "load pocket," or importer, consuming more energy than produced within its borders. Also, much of Manhattan relies on a 123-year-old steam power system, the largest in the world, for both heating and cooling. Although it proved robust during the 1965 and 1977 blackouts and the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, it failed during the 2003 outage, causing a loss of air conditioning that delayed a return to business in many buildings concerned about heat damage to computer systems.
"A frozen New Orleans." A winter failure could prove catastrophic, because any extended loss of heat could cause water pipes to burst in residential and commercial buildings alike. Also, the thousands of "traps" where steam escapes (and billows from manhole covers) could freeze and fail, causing distribution pipes to crack or lose pressure. Former Central Intelligence Agency chief Jim Woolsey, now active on energy issues, argues that parts of the city "could resemble a frozen New Orleans." Also, repressurizing the system could prove laborious and hazardous, because of the power of steam escaping from cracks. "Nobody could simulate the kind of disaster that could happen," says Adam Victor, president of TransGas Energy, a company that has been trying to build a backup power plant in the city but has run into opposition from residents and city officials who prefer building parkland at the old industrial waterside location. Con Edison downplays concerns about the system. "You can't say never because something can always break," says Chris Olert, utility spokesman. "But we've upgraded the plant so it's in tip-top condition, and we've bought plenty of gas for the steam system." Power will be available for New Yorkers, he says, though at a cost up 30 to 35 percent over last year.
Whether because of cost or cold, officials are bracing for human suffering across America this winter. "Forces can come together that turn crisis for some into disaster--that's really what I think we could be looking at this winter," says Iowa energy assistance director McKim. "I hate to sound like the voice of doom, but somebody has to say this stuff. It's just like Hurricane Katrina. They knew it was coming, but little was done to prepare an effective response. And the same thing is happening here."