Regional cooperation averted power disaster DEEP FREEZE '94

January 21, 1994|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,Staff Writer

For two days now, 21 million people in the mid-Atlantic states have skated along the razor's edge of their region's ability to generate or buy electrical power.

Homes, businesses and factories lost power for brief periods on Wednesday, and the daily routines of hundreds of thousands of people were disrupted by closures, early shutdowns and late openings that stretched into today.

And for about six hours on Wednesday, the rising demand for electricity from 21 million people who woke up to record-breaking arctic cold threatened to overwhelm the generators and transmission lines that most people have come to take for granted.

But disaster was averted. Emergency plans worked. Private industry, governments from New Jersey to Washington, and most of the region's residents cooperated.

The experience revealed the dimensions of a complex technology that is normally invisible to consumers and made visible the safeguards built in after the catastrophic Northeast Blackout in 1965.

State public service commissions will be studying the events to determine whether the utilities did their jobs and planned properly for such wintertime weather extremes.

"The commission is very concerned about the dependability of the power generation system in Maryland," said Frank Fulton, a spokesman for the Maryland Public Service Commission. "Some changes may have to be made as far as the reserve capacity for a situation like this. But this seems to have been a highly unusual situation. Contingency plans have been effective, and most of the rate-payers weren't inconvenienced for too long."

Trouble began looming last week for the Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. and the 10 other utilities linked by the PJM Interconnection, a regional power grid formed to coordinate the generation and distribution of electricity.

Weather forecasts warned of bitter arctic cold en route from Alaska. It was the kind of extreme weather that can threaten the stability of the electrical system by pushing its components to their limits.

If a plant fails, or an overheated line trips a circuit breaker, it creates a "voltage depression" that becomes a sort of electrical black hole. It draws power from neighboring systems until they, too, begin to fail.

"In a tightly connected system, what happens in one area can quickly spread out to other areas," said Richard A. Wodyka, system planning manager for PJM.

That's what happened in November 1965, when a failure at an Ontario power plant cascaded into blackouts across eight northeastern states and two Canadian provinces. That outage led directly to the creation of the PJM Interconnection to avert such disasters by coordinating generation and distribution.

Anticipating the strain, Mr. Wodyka said, "we issued cold weather alerts to generating stations to gear them up."

Maintenance was deferred, if possible. Power stations with long start-up times were warned to be ready. Hydroelectric stations gathered all the water they could for later use. And neighboring power grids were asked to help if they could.

Nevertheless, it became clear as early as 3 a.m. Wednesday that there was too little electricity as temperatures across the region ranged from 14 below zero in Harrisburg to 2 below zero in northern New Jersey. Emergency plans were activated.

At 7 a.m., BG&E officials were facing record temperatures of 5 below -- 9 degrees colder than they confronted during their last record wintertime demand in 1989. Consumers were calling for 6,076 megawatts to warm up their homes, 900 megawatts more than they needed in 1989. That's roughly the capacity of one of the two nuclear generators at Calvert Cliffs. One of those units was shut for maintenance Wednesday but was soon brought back on line to help.

At PJM's underground control room in Norristown, Pa., computer screens revealed the dimensions of the growing crisis.

"Around 7 a.m., the demand was approximately 40,500 megawatts," Mr. Wodyka said. "With all the power purchases and all our generators and everything else we could do, our capacity was 40,000 megawatts. We needed 500 megawatts of load relief."

Normally, the power managers try to have 2,500 megawatts of idle reserve capacity.

All together, utilities in the five-state power grid have 55,000 megawatts of their own generating capacity. But 15,000 megawatts of that was unavailable for scheduled and unplanned repairs.

"We are a summer-peaking system," Mr. Wodyka said. Planned maintenance and refueling work is held for the fall, winter and spring. Power officials still don't know why some of that generating capacity was unavailable, but the ravages of bitter cold and ice are suspected.

In Phoenixville, Pa., an oil-fired generator operated by Philadelphia Electric ran out of oil. Ice in the Delaware River blocked oil barges, and icy roads stalled oil trucks.

BG&E reported frozen coal piles and conveyors. Elsewhere, trucks and equipment broke down as diesel fuel turned to gel in the cold. Hydraulic gear, fuel lines and pumps quit.

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