Where Summer Blackouts Are Most Likely
Southern California and southwest Connecticut/New York City are the spots facing the biggest risk of electricity blackouts this summer, according to a report by the North American grid overseer.
In each case, the greatest threat is not a shortage of power plants but bottlenecks in the lines that deliver power from one place to another, according to the North American Electric Reliability Corp., the industry's self-regulatory group. The situation in and around Connecticut, in fact, is so severe that NERC deems the region a "major load pocket"a kind of cul-de-sac in the electricity superhighway. The flow there is so constrained that it is the only area in the country where, in essence, there is not enough energy if consumers crank up air conditioning and other appliances at the potential summer peak.
The unknown factor is, of course, weather. Last summer proved challenging to the delivery system, with simultaneous heat waves in many regions. The nation broke its all-time record for electricity use last July, with demand reaching levels that had not been expected for three or four more years. "If summer 2007 is the same as last year, widespread, sustained, extreme [high temperature, high humidity] summer weather could be a threat to bulk system reliability," NERC's assessment team said in a summary to its membership committee earlier this month.
After last summer's tight electricity situation, Cambridge Energy Research Associates, a leading consulting firm, estimated that $18 billion in annual investment in the nation's grid was needed to prevent future outages.
Some recent projects have been helpful. For example, although NERC's early draft assessment said that Boston would be a concern, the grid overseers believe the region has been aided by the electric company NSTAR's $220 million underground transmission cable project, which went into operation early this month. The 18-mile high-voltage line allows Boston to tap into the resources of southern Massachusetts and Rhode Island. It is one of the largest electrical-infrastructure upgrades in U.S. history.
But since transmission projects take time, money, and often years of political battle, the regional grid operators have turned to another resource to help them get through this summer: deal making. For example, PJM Interconnection, which manages the grid in 13 Middle Atlantic states and the District of Columbia, will put into place a new "reliability pricing model" that requires power generators to firmly commit their electricity to the customers in PJM's region for a full year. That way, PJM avoids the risk that the power companies might sell their electricity elsewhere for a higher price, as they could well do in the deregulated wholesale market, when a heat wave descends.
The PJM region broke three records for electricity use in rapid succession last summer, causing minor voltage fluctuations and leading to calls for consumers to conserve energy. This year, thanks to the new firm supply commitments and agreements that PJM has struck with businesses and other large users to curtail electricity use if supplies get tight, the region estimates it has 18.8 percent more capacity than its estimated peak usage this summer.