A season of sun, sand, and power outages
Dependence on electronic devices like computers makes blackouts more costly.
SAN FRANCISCO AND NEW YORK
An energy problem is brewing this summer that has nothing whatever to do with the price of gasoline.Skip to next paragraph
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You can find it in the offices of the California Energy Commission, which has told its employees to put their computers in "sleep" mode when not in use.
Or in Yakima, Wash., where electricity prices are skyrocketing thanks to unseasonable heat.
It's also shown up in New York City's Upper East Side, where 76,000 customers lost electricity for a few hours recently.
Like last summer, the problem is that electricity is in short supply because US demand has been growing faster than supply.
But an additional twist is adding urgency now. Outages are rapidly growing more costly and disruptive to an American society ever more dependent on computers and sophisticated electronic devices.
"The cost of outages today is much greater than 10 years ago,"
Summertime ... and electricity is in short supply says Paul Carrier, an energy analyst with the US Department of Energy.
Agrees Karl Stahlikopf of EPRI Corp., an energy research company in Palo Alto, Calif.: "As we become more of a silicon society, the importance of the reliability of our electricity gets greater and greater."
Feeling hot, hot, hot
Because July and August are often peak months for electricity usage, the early hot weather has officials worried. The San Francisco Bay Area experienced rolling blackouts earlier this month, and the entire state of California has been on the brink of forced shortages much of the past week.
New York's corporation counsel, Michael Hess, worries about Con Ed, responsible for the recent outage in the Upper East Side. "The troubling question is, if they can't handle an 88-degree day in June, what happens when it gets to 98 in August?"
And prices are soaring in some regions. In the Pacific Northwest, some utilities are buying electricity on the open market for as much as 50 times the normal price. Shortages in the Northwest have had an impact in California, reducing its ability to import spare power from the region.
While the West Coast is considered particularly vulnerable to further electricity disruptions this year, the North American Electric Reliability Council (NERC), an industry group in Princeton, N.J., also pinpoints New England, New York, Arizona, New Mexico, and southern Nevada as problem areas.
The city that never sleeps
Officials at New York's Con Ed, an electricity supplier, recently cut the power to six large apartment buildings on the Upper East Side after the temperature and humidity skyrocketed and a feeder cable overheated on a day when electric demand reached its third highest level in the utility's history. The cut-off outrages New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani.
"The idea that they don't have enough power doesn't make any sense at this stage," he says.
Despite the problem, Con Ed officials believe they will have enough electricity to get through the summer.
"Supply is tight because the economy is booming and there is a lot of load growth," says Joseph Petta, a Con Ed spokesman. But, he says, "clearly more power plants are needed to meet the demand for the future."