Power crisis to linger until things warm up

January 20, 1994|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,Staff Writer

Record cold, fuel supply problems, hard-pressed generators and soaring demand all converged yesterday to trigger an unprecedented wintertime electrical crisis affecting 21 million people from Washington to New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

As consumers pushed up their thermostats to ward off arctic temperatures, regional electrical managers scrambled to head off uncontrolled outages that could lead to "cascading" power failures across the region.

They ordered voltage reductions and "rolling blackouts" normally reserved for the 100-degree heat and humidity of summer in the mid-Atlantic states. And they appealed to leaders in government, private business and industry to close early and turn out the lights when they left.

The crisis isn't over yet, they said.

"We're going to have these emergency conditions until the weather warms up, probably another 24 to 48 hours," Bruce Balmat, performance manager at the PJM Interconnection, said yesterday.

PJM, in Norristown, Pa., is the "power grid" through which Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. and 10 other utilities coordinate the generation and distribution of electricity.

The companies serve 9 million customers in New Jersey, Delaware, 60 percent of Maryland, 75 percent of Pennsylvania and all of Washington, D.C., and Virginia's Eastern Shore.

This sort of midwinter power struggle has no precedent at PJM. "We've had cold days, where for one or two days we've had to resort to some emergency procedures, but we've not had manual load curtailments in winter before," Mr. Balmat said.

"Manual load curtailments" are intentional power cuts to customers. They have been imposed across the region during summer heat waves as air conditioning usage soared.

A combination of factors appears to be responsible, all of them related to the widespread, record cold.

Regional and local utility officials said ice-choked waterways and highways slowed the progress of barges and trucks bringing fuel oil to their generators.

Zero temperatures also froze pumps, fuel and water lines at many power stations.

BG&E said its fueling problems were intensified when piles of coal, and the conveyors that carry it to generator furnaces, froze solid.

Meanwhile, utilities faced with oil delivery problems were unable to switch to gas as they might during a summertime crisis. That's because natural gas supplies in winter are reserved for residential use.

In a summer crisis, power managers can turn to cooler neighboring regions with surplus generating capacity to buy needed power.

Yesterday, however, they found those utilities struggling with the same arctic cold and heavy demand.

"We are buying all available power from our neighbors right now," Mr. Balmat said.

"Systems to the west are experiencing the same weather conditions and implementing similar emergency procedures, so very little is available."

He said getting power from the west is also limited by several transmission "bottlenecks" -- high-tension power lines inadequate to carry the needed electricity.

"We've purchased a large amount from and through the New York Power Pool, up to 3,600 megawatts," he said.

"We're looking everywhere, leaving no stone unturned. We have contacted utilities as far south as Carolina Power and Light" in Raleigh, N.C.

This week's frigid blast of arctic air did not come as a surprise. Days before its arrival, power grid managers took several steps to meet the expected demand, Mr. Balmat said.

From PJM's Norristown, Pa., control room, operators ordered a slowdown in the production of hydroelectric power so that more water could be accumulated behind the dams for use later. They also ordered delays in plant maintenance, keeping 3,500 megawatts of generating capacity available when the cold deepened.

The stress on the equipment in use -- and the fear that it might fail -- added urgency to the power grid's pleas for curtailed demand.

"We're operating all available units at their maximum permissible output, and when you do this for days at a time, you're more prone to equipment malfunctions at power plants," Mr. Balmat said. "Those units are being stressed, not only by temperature conditions, but also the fact that they're running full blast for extended periods of time."

Even so, by the time the crunch came yesterday, Mr. Balmat said, "we had a normal amount of plant maintenance, such as nuclear refueling that had been planned for months, and a normal amount of forced outages -- where there had been equipment failure and units were not available to operate."

Yesterday's cold still sent demand beyond what capacity was DTC available. In one sense, that may be a good economic sign, Mr. Balmat said.

"Our peak load exceeded the previous all-time peak load by close to 10 percent, so that's a combination of temperatures colder than normal, and probably some additional customer usage," he said. That added usage may signal a growing economy, he said, including the construction of homes with electric heat and the purchase of electrical appliances.

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