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U.S. News 7/3/00

Get ready for brownouts

Detroit has had a couple of dark days latelyliterally. Workers there recently got stuck in elevators and trains. Schools shut early. Courts closed. The city's 87,000 streetlights and 1,250 traffic signals blinked out. California didn't fare much better, experiencing power outages in several pockets.

Things could get worse. The reason: There's just not enough electricity to keep up with growing demand. Energy Secretary Bill Richardson has been holding "electricity reliability summits" across the country to explain the problem. "For the sick or the elderly," Richardson says, "a reliable electricity supply can be a matter of life and death."

Experts predict the summer will bring more "brownouts," periods when utilities reduce voltage flows to avoid power outages, resulting in lights flickering or computers not running at full speed. Prime trouble spots: New England, New York, and the Southwest, including California, Arizona, and New Mexico.

Price of prosperity. The Energy Department estimates that the nation's power plants will be able to produce 780,000 megawatts this summer, an uncomfortably slim 80,000 megawatts more than the expected demand. What's up? In a word: the booming economy. People are consuming more power and electricity than ever for computers, fax machines, and other appliances in homes, offices, and factories. Also, this summer is expected to be a scorcher, so many will be cranking up the AC.

The nation's old electric grid, which transmits power, hasn't kept pace. The industry has been undergoing a slow transition from a monopoly to a competitive market system, a shift fraught with uncertainty. About half the states have deregulated their electric utilities. But many have delayed decisions about building new power plants and lines to increase capacity because they don't know if they will recover those costs in the new competitive market.

The administration is pushing legislation designed to encourage utilities to build more generation and transmission systems. It's unclear whether that's in the cards. And even if it is, it's unlikely it would be passed in time to prevent problems this year. Could be a long, hot, dark summer. -Angie Cannon

-- Martin Thompson (, June 26, 2000


Throw on top of all of this the big, coming natural gas shortatage, which nobody seems to be talking about, or even be aware of, and it looks like a lot of lights out, no heat/cooling is what we've got to look forward to--widespread.

-- Uncle Fred (, June 26, 2000.

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