It may not be easy to love the local electric company, but when temperatures stuck in the 90s last week, Marylanders were relieved to hear their fans and air conditioners humming.
And a big reason they were humming, despite the record-breaking demand for power, was the fortuitous start-up May 28 -- in mid-heat wave -- of the $662 million Brandon Shores 2 generating station.
The 642-megawatt, coal-burning giant on the south shore of the Patapsco River, 10 miles southeast of downtown Baltimore, is the Baltimore Gas & Electric Co.'s cleanest and most-advanced conventional generator.
But planning and building the Brandon Shores complex has never been easy. From timing its completion to coping with its smokestack emissions and fly ash wastes, it has been nearly 20 years of headaches for BG&E management.
But now it's done, and company officials yesterday were showing it off.
"We brought Brandon Shores 2 on line when our customers needed it," said Edward A. Crooke, president of utility operations for BG&E. "Everyone involved in this project should be proud."
Actually, Brandon Shores 2 comes into commercial service at least a year after BG&E's customers really needed it.
Last July, record heat, the shutdown of the 1280-megawatt Calvert Cliffs nuclear generators and a limited ability to import power all conspired to leave the company with too little electricity to meet soaring customer demand.
Regional power managers responded by imposing voltage reductions and rolling blackouts on BG&E's customers.
The Brandon Shores headaches began soon after planning started in the early 1970s. Engineers first were forced to rein in the project when oil embargoes and a recession unexpectedly slowed the growth in consumer demand.
Instability in the oil markets also prompted them to switch fuels after work had begun and re-equip Brandon Shores to burn coal rather than oil as originally planned. Unused oil storage tanks on the property attest to the switch.
The first generator at Brandon Shores finally began producing electricity in 1984, but completion of Unit 2 continued to be put off because of the continued sluggish growth in demand.
"Until 1989, it appeared we wouldn't need additional baseload ,, capacity before the spring of 1992," Crooke said.
Actually, peak summertime demand for power jumped 12 percent in 1987, and came within 7.5 percent of the company's capacity. Planners hoped it was a fluke, but record heat the following summer twice forced BG&E into voltage reductions.
By then it was abundantly clear that Brandon Shores 2 would be needed before 1992, and the company launched an accelerated effort to bring it on line by May 1991.
"There was risk in that decision," Crooke said, "but our own people and our 150 contractors put together a tremendous display of teamwork and efficiency to get the job done."
As it turned out, they didn't finish the job quite soon enough.
Utility managers found last fall that Congress was preparing to pass a Clean Air Act that would impose stricter air pollution standards oncompanies that brought generators into service after the law was passed in November.
Unit 2 would miss the deadline by just six months, and BG&E and other utilities began lobbying Congress for some sort of break.
As BG&E's air quality chief, John J. Strauch, explains it, the use of low-sulfur coal at Brandon Shores allows both units to operate within the law's limits for sulfur dioxide (SO2) emissions beyond the year 2000. The gas contributes to acid rain.
The real problem for BG&E was that the law also sets a cap on the total tonnage of SO2 the utility can emit from all its operating plants. Any emissions above that cap have to be cleaned up, either by costly smokestack "scrubbers," by reductions in emissions at other "dirtier" BG&E generators, or by purchasing "allowances" from other, "cleaner" utilities.
BG&E lobbyists wanted the not-quite-finished Brandon Shores 2 grandfathered" among the operating plants, so that its SO2 emissions would be included within the company's allowed SO2 limits.
Environmentalists argued that none of Brandon Shores 2's emissions should be grandfathered under the limits.
The result was a compromise.
"Brandon Shores would typically emit 20,000 to 23,000 tons of SO2 per year, depending on the amount of fuel consumed," Strauch said. The law allowed just 8,907 tons, about 40 percent, to be counted in the company's total.
The bottom line for BG&E is that it will have to find ways to reduce SO2 emissions systemwide to compensate for part of Unit 2's added emissions. And, it will have to meet future increases in consumer demand for electricity without adding more sulfur emissions.
Although environmentalists have called for them, smokestack "scrubbers," which clean 90 to 95 percent of the sulfur from the smoke, may never be built, Strauch said. Most of BG&E's plants are relatively clean-burning and the utility can meet Clean Air Act standards in cheaper ways.