Taken off guard by yesterday's record-breaking heat, Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. struggled to meet a huge surge in energy demand and asked its 1 million customers to conserve electricity today to avoid voltage reductions or blackouts.
Thousands of people blasted their air conditioners yesterday as the temperature reached a record-setting 98 degrees at Baltimore-Washington International Airport and a record-tying 95 degrees at the Baltimore Custom House. The result was the largest demand for energy on a September day in BG&E's history, said Art Slusark, the power company's spokesman.
The scorching heat also closed schools early in Baltimore and could close them again today if temperatures reach the mid-90s as expected.
The school system dismisses classes early when the temperature reaches 90 degrees or more by 11 a.m., said Brigitte Johnson, a spokeswoman for the school system.
Baltimore's suburban school systems did not follow the same policy. They stayed open yesterday despite the oppressive heat in many classrooms.
"A lot of our students would go from an un-air-conditioned school to an un-air-conditioned home, anyway," said Carey Gaddis, a spokeswoman for Carroll County's public schools.
"We didn't even consider it," echoed Albert Seymour, a spokesman for the Harford County school system.
To conserve electricity, BG&E is asking customers to set the thermostats of their air conditioners at 80 degrees and turn them off if they leave their houses for more than four hours. In addition, homeowners should postpone washing or drying clothes until after 8 p.m., and businesses with alternative sources of power should use them, the utility said.
If energy demand continues to climb today, the utility may have to reduce voltage by 5 percent to conserve electricity, Mr. Slusark said. A voltage reduction usually has little effect on customers, though some may notice electric motors running slowly or see a black frame around their television screens, Mr. Slusark said.
BG&E would use planned rotating outages -- blackouts -- as a last resort, he said.
In June, July or August, the utility would have little trouble fueling residential and commercial air conditioners on a 98-degree day, Mr. Slusark said.
But in September, BG&E and other regional utility companies begin taking power plants out of service for repairs, inspections, equipment upgrades and other work that must be done before the onslaught of the heating season.
Yesterday, six major generators in the BG&E regional power pool -- which includes utilities in Maryland, Washington, Delaware, New Jersey and central and eastern Pennsylvania -- were idle for planned maintenance, and two other plants broke down trying to keep up with the energy demand, Mr. Slusark said.
"It's an unusual combination of circumstances," he said.
Fred Davis, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service at BWI, blamed the heat on a withering blast of air from the Gulf of Mexico.
But relief is on the way. The thermometer will fall slowly through Friday, when a cold front from Minnesota will drop temperatures into the 70s, he said.