East Coast Could Face Brownouts


BROWNOUTS! During the summer months, major population centers of the United States - including the Eastern Seaboard and parts of the Midwest - could face these electrical voltage reductions.

Energy experts say such reductions, if they occur, will be the result of rising energy demand and usage growth, combined with seasonal hot weather patterns.

Although summer is still several weeks away, voltage reductions have already occurred in parts of the mid-Atlantic region, including New Jersey, Virginia, and Maryland.

Voltage reductions typically occur for only short periods of time, from several hours to a day. But for consumers, power reductions can trigger a wide range of problems beyond the mere discomfort of rising temperatures as air conditioning units go out or are forced to work at reduced capacity. The motors of older appliances can be injured, as they are forced to work harder with reduced power. Some computers and other electronic data-retrieval systems can lose memory banks.

For businesses, voltage reductions can be costly. They may be forced to use backup, private, power-generating sources. When voltage is reduced for substantial periods of time, stores may have to shut their doors to customers and plants close down production.

If electricity loss is great enough, there can be systemwide blackouts.

For the moment, few energy experts expect blackouts. But brownouts are possible.

``Last year, most of the problem of voltage reduction occurred largely around eastern Massachusetts,'' says Eugene Gorzelnik, a spokesman for the North American Electric Reliability Council, based in Princeton, N.J. (NERC is the main forecasting agency for the electricity industry.) This year, says Mr. Gorzelnik, the potential for brownouts may involve a large number of states in the Eastern US. But NERC currently believes that generating capacity is ``adequate to meet summer demand.''

For the United States as a whole, according to NERC, summer electrical peak demand will decrease about 1 percent from last summer. Last year, NERC notes, demand soared because of the unusually hot weather that marked much of the nation.

Nonetheless, NERC believes that a number of areas are at potential risk for ``emergency procedures'' this summer. In part this is because of somewhat low electricity reserves. Also, several major generating facilities are either out for maintenance, or are not yet on line. States include New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Maryland, as well as the District of Columbia and the Long Island section of New York State. To a lesser extent, parts of Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky, and West Virginia are at risk.

In New Jersey, state utility officials were forced to impose a 5 percent energy reduction June 1, after a period of unusually high temperatures and strong demand. Moreover, 12,000 megawatts of electricity was unavailable, because of maintenance work under way on a number of generating facilities. Twenty-eight percent of the region's generating capacity was out of service June 1. Utilities in the state were forced to turn on backup emergency units.

Voltage reductions also took place in the Washington, D.C., area the weekend of June 3.

Electricity capacity margins in some parts of the Eastern US are now at levels that some energy experts consider risky. ``Capacity margin'' is the safety margin of electrical power available for planned and unplanned outages, or for use during a period when demand is excessive, such as during last summer's protracted hot weather. Normally, a region should have a capacity margin of 15 to 17 percent, according to John Siegel, vice-president of the US Council for Energy Awareness, a Washington-based trade group for the nuclear power industry. Currently, according to Mr. Siegel, capacity margin is running about 15 percent for the Southeast US, from Virginia down through the Carolinas; about 14 percent for the New England area; and only about 12 percent for the mid-Atlantic states. ``To a lesser extent, everything east of the Mississippi River could see margins drop to 17 percent this summer,'' Siegel says.

That margin ``should be enough to get the region through the summer without major difficulty,'' he says.

``Electrical demand continues to increase very rapidly,'' says a spokesman for the Edison Electric Institute in Washington, a trade group. For the 52-week period ended May 27, he notes, there was increased power output in the Northeast US of 6.2 percent over the prior year. For the mid-Atlantic region, the increased output was 4.4 percent.

Siegel adds, ``It takes years to arrange the financing and win approval for new generating plants. But where are the new generating plants being built for the future? Where is the power going to come from for increased electrical demand in the early 1990s?''

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