Blackouts raise questions about BG&E DEEP FREEZE '94

January 21, 1994|By David Conn | David Conn,Staff Writer

In Chicago the mercury hit 21 below zero Wednesday, with wind chills up to 80 below. But Commonwealth Edison didn't have any problems meeting its customers' demand for power, according to a spokesman.

The average temperature in the seven states served by Columbus, Ohio-based American Electric Power Co. was minus 19 degrees, but the company handled demand that was 10 percent higher than its previous record.

Akron residents suffered through 25 degrees below zero Wednesday -- and Ohio Edison Co. had excess power that it sold to East Coast utilities.

But residents in the Mid-Atlantic region, where temperatures were higher than in the Midwest, saw their power go out for brief periods Wednesday in "rolling blackouts," and Washington's mayor declared a state of emergency, shutting down half the federal government.

With the worst of the deep freeze at an end, some energy industry members and public officials are beginning to question why Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. and other local utilities were unable to handle the cold spell as well as their counterparts in other states.

"I was astounded yesterday morning when I learned that there was a concern about keeping the system running," said John Glynn, the head of the Office of People's Counsel, the agency which represents customers before Maryland's Public Service Commission.

"I think the commission and other regulatory authorities are going to ask some tough questions about this," Mr. Glynn said.

BG&E and the other members of a multi-state "power pool" argue that the cold temperatures were only one of several unusual factors that combined to strain the system's capacity. The geographic reach of the cold spell left even southern utilities devoid of energy that might have been sold to this region, according to Tom Welle, a spokesman for Potomac Edison Power Co., which serves Washington and much of Prince George's and Montgomery counties.

Further, the frigid weather has disrupted transportation so long that utilities have had trouble getting oil and coal deliveries.

Those conditions exacerbated the record levels of demand for power. BG&E's demand peaked at 6,077 megawatts Wednesday, which was the highest on record.

It surpassed the summertime record of 5,910 megawatts in July 1991, according to BG&E spokesman Arthur Slusark.

"These peaks could not have been forecasted -- they were not forecasted -- by anyone up and down the East Coast," Mr. Slusark said.

But the fact remains that utilities in the Midwest, even ones whose power demand typically peaks in the summer like those in the Mid-Atlantic region, survived the cold spell without hitting their capacity.

Companies such as American Electric Power in Columbus and Detroit Edison said they have modernized their preventive maintenance programs to ensure that enough of their units are ** operating, even in winter when demand typically lags behind summer.

They've taken steps to prevent their coal from freezing, and they're using different mixtures of oil to keep costs down during off-peak periods.

Local utilities have taken some of these steps, officials said, including measures to thaw out frozen coal and upgrade maintenance procedures. What these companies lack is the level of power-generating capacity of some of their counterparts.

BG&E is building a $110 million gas-combustion generator in Harford County that will provide 140 megawatts of capacity upon completion next year. And it is in the process of selecting a contractor to build another 140-megawatt unit that would be ready by the spring of 1997.

But the company argues that boosting capacity much further doesn't necessarily make sense. "You really can't afford to build your system to handle this kind of peak, because it'll just sit idle for most of the time," Mr. Slusark said.

Instead, BG&E and other utilities have been required by state law to develop programs aimed at reducing demand.

But Maryland's utilities used to have plenty of capacity, according to Lock Wills, president of Southern Maryland Oil Inc., in La Plata. "The utilities have been effective in using up that excess capacity primarily [by encouraging customers to use] heat pumps," said Mr. Wills, a member of the Better Home Heat Council's steering committee.

In 1980, about 201,600 Maryland homes, or 14 percent, had heat pumps, Mr. Wills said. In 1990, the number had risen to 517,000, or 30 percent of Maryland households.

The utilities tout heat pumps as a more efficient energy supplier for all but the most extreme temperatures. But Mr. Wills and Mr. Glynn, the People's Counsel, point out that winters have been mild in this area only in the last few years. Before that, the region had at least five consecutive harsh winters.

"It's an absolute disaster for the system if people are cold despite the use of the system, and they go out and buy space heaters," which are the most costly and least efficient form of heating, Mr. Glynn said.

Although the cost per unit of electricity and natural gas hasn't increased much lately, Marylanders will be reminded of the cold spell next month when their utility bills arrive.

The typical house heated by gas pays about $3 a day during the winter, Mr. Slusark said. In the last four days that cost has risen to $4.64, he said.

A household heated primarily by electricity would pay about DTC $5.50 each winter day; in the last week that cost has risen to an average of $7.90 a day, Mr. Slusark said.

He said the company couldn't estimate what the increased consumption will mean for its profits, but sales of gas this month have been about 9 percent above normal, and electric sales have been about 7 percent higher than usual.

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