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Power could become a problem

As temperatures rise, variety of complications will present challenge for state electric utilties.

By David Rohn

The Indianapolis Star

INDIANAPOLIS (March 26, 2000) -- During the hottest stretches of the past two summers, Indiana households and businesses came precariously close to suffering intermittent brownouts or blackouts.

Things could be as bad this summer if forecasts for hot and dry weather are accurate.

And for summers to come, growing power consumption, aging coal-fired power plants, mounting opposition to new gas-fired peak plants and tougher air pollution requirements pose problems for utilities.

Chicago, which has been plagued by a series of localized power outages over the past decade, illustrates what happens when power goes out in a heat wave.

People, especially the elderly, die of heatstroke when air conditioners and fans don't work.

Plants shut down.

Last summer, businesses in parts of the Loop lost power. The Board of Trade had to close early.

Food in refrigerators spoiled. Elevators stopped running. A valuable collection of DNA samples in the Field Museum was imperiled.

Millions of people out West experienced blackouts twice during the summer of 1996 -- one triggered by a sagging power line that hit a cottonwood tree.

The North American Reliability Council was formed as the result of a major East Coast blackout in 1965. It works with member U.S. and Canadian utilities and customers to "keep the lights on."

Studies by the council and other agencies, including the Department of Energy and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, say power-plant construction isn't keeping pace with demand.

A megawatt of electricity will power about 250 homes.

In 1998, according to the council, only 892 megawatts of new electrical generating capacity were added nationwide. At the same time, 3,164 megawatts were retired, mostly from decommissioned nuclear power plants.

A forecast prepared for the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission by Purdue University researchers said Indiana needs 7,650 megwatts of new generating capacity by 2016 to maintain adequate reserve capacity.

Almost all new capacity relies on building gas-fired turbine peak plants, small power generators used during heavy demand.

But those plants suddenly have run into opposition in rural Indiana communities.

Permit applications have been withdrawn for an 825-megawatt plant near Columbus and a 640-megawatt plant in Delaware County. State regulators recently ordered construction halted at a half-completed 130-megawatt plant in Henry County.

One investor withdrew from a proposed 500-megawatt plant in southern Parke County, putting its fate in doubt.

That's nearly 2,100 megawatts of power that had been scheduled to go online over the next few years now on hold.

Meanwhile, a robust economy is causing demand for electricity to grow faster than expected.

About 2,000 megawatts of new Indiana generating capacity being added for this summer from peak plants approved and under construction will do little more than match growing demand for electricity.

It won't add to reserves.

Environmentalists caution that building more power plants is not the answer. They suggest that conservation and renewable energy sources such as solar power need to replace the traditional "build and burn" power plant philosophy.

The East Central Area Reliability Coordination Agreement is one of 10 regional, self-regulating utility councils created to ensure reliable power distribution.

Indiana is in the ECAR region.

ECAR projects that without new power generation, electricity reserves in the region would drop to about 6.5 percent of total capacity by 2002, and five years later, demand would outstrip the supply.

Purdue researchers say that a 15 percent reserve is needed.

Although most of the gas turbine plants proposed in Indiana won't sell power directly to Indiana customers, their sale of power at peak demand times on the wholesale market affects everyone on the grid, including Hoosiers.

Because power plants often are located far from a utility's customers, power does not flow just within a utility's service area. It is put on a grid that utilities throughout much of the nation draw on.

There are three independent power grids in the United States: the Western Interconnect, the Texas Interconnect and the Eastern Interconnect.

Indiana and ECAR are in the Eastern Interconnect.

Brant Eldridge, executive manager for ECAR, explained that for the grid to work, energy produced by all power plants that feed into it must equal or exceed demand. The grid also must maintain a proper frequency of alternating current.

Otherwise, he said, cascading outages can cause the grid to start crashing, resulting in local blackouts.

The Eastern Interconnect, the ECAR region and Indiana utilities have been in precarious shape the past two summers.

Ordinarily, Eldridge explained, when a heat wave hits one region, surplus power can be obtained elsewhere on the interconnect where temperatures are cooler and demand is less.

But as several utility officials put it, the heat waves of 1998 and 1999 "left a big footprint." Demand was high almost everywhere on the Eastern Interconnect.

Compounding the heat has been the unavailability both summers of the 2,100-megawatt Cook nuclear power plant, which was ordered shut down by federal regulators. It normally supplies power to the grid and to AEP Power's northern Indiana customers.

Storms and mechanical failures also caused unexpected problems at conventional power plants.

Indiana utilities have had to enforce agreements canceling power to some some industrial customers. Some companies agree to cheaper rates in return for losing power during high-demand times.

There were defaults on contracts to buy and sell electricity during peak demand periods.

Prices of electricity on the spot market soared to astronomical levels.

There have been power surges, threatening delicate computerized equipment.

During a prolonged and widespread heat wave in July, Indianapolis was on the verge having rolling blackouts imposed.

Jim Sadtler, manager of energy services for Indianapolis Power & Light Co., said IPL's 515-megawatt generator No. 4 at its Petersburg power plant experienced a tube leak, wiping out nearly 18 percent of the utility's generating capacity at the outset of the heat wave.

River levels were low. Hot weather increased water temperatures.

Both caused power plant problems, especially for IPL and Cinergy, two utilities that serve more than 1 million households and business in much of the southern two-thirds of Indiana.

Sadtler said water temperature upstream from one cooling tower was 90 degrees -- well over what the tower was designed for.

IPL had to use permit variances to discharge abnormally hot water into the river. Generating capacity at its power plants was diminished.

Even with stringent conservation measures, the utility's load demand soared to 2,898 megawatts in late July.

IPL normally can generate about 3,000 megawatts of electricity. But with its 515-megawatt Petersburg generator down and warm river water sapping performance at other plants, it had to look elsewhere to meet demand.

Only "hedge contracts" to buy power from other utilities and conservation measures by customers prevented the utility from selectively shutting power off to various areas of the city on a rotating basis for a few hours at a time.

This summer, the National Weather Service is predicting a continuation of La Nina cold water temperatures in the Pacific Ocean. That bodes for hot and dry weather throughout much of the United States, including Indiana.

Marni Lemons, a spokeswoman for IPL, said the utility "unequivocally" will be able to avoid blackouts this summer.

Officials with other major Indiana utilities said they are in better shape to meet heavy demand than they have been in the past. But, as Angeline Protogere of Cinergy, added, "The margin of error is extremely thin."

-- Martin Thompson (, March 27, 2000

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