When the Lights Go Out
Bottlenecks in delivery lines threaten blackouts this year
Southern California and the Connecticut suburbs of New York: If you live in either of these regions, you could be fanning yourself and sitting in the dark at some point this summer, according to the energy industry group that oversees the North American grid.
It's not a shortage of power plants that puts these areas at greatest risk of electrical blackouts, says the North American Electric Reliability Corp.; it's bottlenecks in the lines that deliver power from one place to another. Connecticut's situation is so severe that NERC calls the region a "major load pocket"-a kind of cul-de-sac in the electricity superhighway. It is the only area in the country where, in essence, there will not be enough energy if consumers crank up air conditioning and appliances to the full summer peak.
The unknown factor is, of course, weather. During last summer's heat waves, the nation broke all-time electricity use records, with demand reaching levels that had not been expected for years. "If summer 2007 is the same as last year, widespread, sustained, extreme summer weather could be a threat to bulk system reliability," NERC's assessment team said in a summary to its membership committee.
There has been progress, however. For example, NERC says that Boston has been aided by an 18-mile underground transmission cable built by the NSTAR electric company in one of the largest electrical infrastructure upgrades in U.S. history.
Promises. But transmission projects take time and money, so grid operators have turned to another resource: deal making. PJM Interconnection, which manages the mid-Atlantic grid, now requires power generators to firmly commit their electricity to the region for a full year. That way, PJM avoids the risk that the companies might sell their electricity elsewhere for a higher price, as they could otherwise do in the deregulated wholesale market. PJM says it has 18.8 percent spare capacity this summer.
In contrast, NERC says that Connecticut's "capacity margin" is actually negative. NERC notes that New England's grid has obtained agreements from some large electricity consumers to interrupt their service at heavy load times, as PJM also has done. But those arrangements give Connecticut only 200 megawatts extra. That's enough to power at most 200,000of the state's 1.3 million households. The spillover point that worries authorities is New York City. Transmission problems in neighboring states and Canada played a key role in at least two of the major outages in Big Apple history.
After the massive 2003 outage, in which the mistakes of one Ohio utility cascaded across the Northeast, affecting 50 million people, a task force said authorities should put mandatory, enforceable reliability standards into place. Beginning June 4, NERC and eight regional organizations will have authority for the first time to levy penalties of $1 million per day on companies that threaten grid reliability.
This story appears in the May 28, 2007 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.