High-energy nation could pull the plug on the power grid

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High-energy nation could pull the plug on the power grid By LISA HOFFMAN Scripps Howard News Service May 29, 2000

- You grab a few cubes from the ice-maker for your iced tea, nuke a frozen pizza in the microwave, toss a load of wash in the dryer, notch up the AC, crank the stereo, scan in a couple of photos to e-mail to relatives, and sit back for an evening cruising the Internet.

Upstairs, the kids are styling their hair, playing computer games and listening to the radio, while your spouse is in the basement office finishing the spreadsheet work that didn't get done that day on the job.

That seemingly serene summer scenario is anything but that for those in charge of supplying electricity to the nation.

Energy experts warn that the onset of the hot season, coupled with the recent acceleration in the wiring of America, is likely to bring months of power brownout and blackout alerts in unprecedented number.

As demand drains supply, the cost of power for companies and consumers is headed for a dramatic uptick. Peak-time prices hundreds of times higher than usual are forecast this summer in some regions.

Why? Combine a sizzling economy, an explosion of computer users at home and on the job, and a proliferation of other electronic devices ruled by microprocessors for work and play. The result is a ravenous appetite for reliable electricity that must travel over a lagging transmission system designed for a largely bygone era.

"The system, designed as a two-lane road, is now being used as an autobahn or New Jersey Turnpike," said James Owen, spokesman for the Edison Electric Institute, an interest group of private electric companies.

Particularly worried is the burgeoning high-tech industry, as well as firms engaged in Internet commerce or otherwise dependent on e-mail and similar online ways of doing business.

For them, a blackout, or complete power failure, can be ruinous. From online stock trading outfits to such Internet merchants as eBay and Amazon.com, every minute the power is out can mean millions of dollars lost.

Brownouts _ caused by intentional cutbacks in electrical juice _ also can wreak havoc on sensitive equipment, including that used by everything from ATM machines to auto mechanics. Surges or other blips, even those imperceptible to an office worker, can knock a microprocessor for a loop.

The digital world, according to experts, demands a power supply that is essentially 99.9999 percent steady and reliable. Despite its stresses, the U.S. system is remarkably dependable, but even so, the average residential customer can count on glitches causing a cumulative seven or eight hours without power a year.

That would be catastrophic for new economy enterprises, where a disruption as brief as "one-60th of one second is enough to make everything go blooey," said Karl Stahlkopf, vice president of the non-profit Electric Power Research Institute in Palo Alto, Calif.

Estimates are that the economy will lose more than $25 billion a year as a result of power disruptions which, until the digital age, were far from rare but hardly so crippling.

In the past decade alone, the power "load," or demand, has increased 35 percent while the capacity to get that electricity to users has grown only 18 percent. Conservative forecasts predict another 20 percent boost in demand ahead, but no more than a 4 percent hike in transmission capacity. A big part of the problem is that no one wants new power poles or stations near their homes or businesses.

Complicating the situation is the ongoing deregulation of the power industry.

"The country is increasingly sensitive to any type of disruption," said Jamie Wimberly, vice president of the Consumer Energy Council, a watchdog group in Washington.

Already this summer, the Silicon Valley region of California, broiling now in a heat wave, is being warned by Pacific Gas & Electric to make a concerted conservation effort or face significant power problems and financial penalties. Energy experts expect the same situation to bedevil other parts of the country this summer, particularly in other high-tech hubs.

Some technology firms are shelling out big bucks to build their own power plants to insulate themselves from disruptions. In Redwood Shores, Calif., for instance, computer hardware and software giant Oracle Corp. has spent $6 million to construct its own generators and substation system.

The Energy Department and conservation groups have begun to amplify their calls for the country to cut back consumption through more energy-efficient appliances and power-stingy habits.

Some in the industry are demanding more financial incentives to stimulate investment in the nation's power grid, coupled with fewer restrictions from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

"We have to build a type of electrical power infrastructure that will support a microprocessor-based society," Stahlkopf said. "We have very little choice."

(Contact Lisa Hoffman at HoffmanL(at)shns.com or http://www.shns.com.)


-- Martin Thompson (mthom1927@aol.com), May 29, 2000

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