Responding to Frigid Weather

January 21, 1994

An editorial in The Sun yesterday understated the increase in peak electric power demand Wednesday morning compared with the previous winter record. It was 17 percent greater than in the previous peak in 1989.

+ The Sun regrets the errors.

In our high tech society, we need reminders of its limits. Sometimes it is a major disaster like Hurricane Andrew or the Los Angeles earthquake. Less destructive but no less instructive is this very frigid week in the nation's northeast quadrant.

Those frisky little kilowatts we take for granted were strained to the breaking point Wednesday morning -- and sometimes beyond it. Heavy demand for electric power in one place can usually be met by borrowing excess capacity from hundreds of miles away. But with the East submerged in Arctic air, there was no extra power within reach.

FOR THE RECORD - CORRECTION

At dawn Wednesday, as people were waking up and turning on lights, coffee makers and TV sets, the 10-utility mid-Atlantic power grid reached its capacity to generate electricity. Power demand in the Baltimore area at 8 a.m. was 5.5 percent higher than the previous record four winters ago.

Baltimore Gas & Electric Co. had started appealing to customers an hour earlier to cut back on their usage. A lot of people were obviously listening: the power drain dropped immediately. Reductions were more than could be expected from the planned brownouts. Drop continued through the day, picking up only as people returned home at dusk. Many businesses and government offices closed down or drastically reduced power use.

That's obviously cause for self-congratulation. People responded quickly and conscientiously to a natural emergency, involving some personal sacrifices. By yesterday morning, without brownouts, demand was down 16 percent from Wednesday.

But the experience is also cause for introspection. The capital of the world's most powerful nation was all but shut down. In Maryland, most government offices remained closed, many businesses opened late or not at all, and thousands of homes struggled for hours without electricity. All it took was a lot of ice on the streets and temperatures that were excruciatingly low here but by no means unheard of elsewhere in the nation.

It's clear utility officials were not caught by surprise, but the power-shedding process would have been more efficient had government officials and the public been warned sooner. Next time, BG&E should get its message out earlier.

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