Power trackers flick on summer switch

Coming heat waves will test firm's ability to keep the East cool


June 04, 2000|By Shanon D. Murray | Shanon D. Murray,SUN STAFF

Travel 25 miles north of Philadelphia to find the region's first line of defense against the summer sizzle - a command post where technicians warily eye a nearly two-story-high electronic wall map and banks of computer monitors 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

The mission: Keep the megawatts flowing to 23 million people from New Jersey to Virginia - even during a heat wave.

The Valley Forge command post belongs to the PJM Interconnection LLC, an independent system operator that controls the region's power grid - 8,000 miles of transmission wires connected to 540 power plants. At the top of the wall map a red neon sign tracks the grid and shows how many megawatts are in use.

During July's heat wave, system emergencies, brownouts and rolling blackouts hit parts of the East Coast, as electric utilities and power companies struggled to balance the demand for energy with supply.

As an early spell of hot weather in May strained the region's power system again, the question at hand is: Will there be enough electricity to meet consumer demand this summer?

Electricity demand, fueled by a booming economy, is rising while power generation and transmission network capacity have remained relatively constant, forcing PJM to operate close to its reserve margins on occasion.

In fact, the North American Electric Reliability Council (NERC), an electric utility trade group, recently projected that peak demand this year will be 1.7 percent above 1999's level, and parts of the nation - including the Northeast and the Southwest - may not have enough electricity to meet consumer demand during the hottest days. In its monthly short-term energy outlook, the U.S. Energy Information Administration, a statistical agency of the U.S. Department of Energy, said shortages cannot be ruled out if there is a repeat of last summer's record heat.

Furthermore, a recent U.S. Energy Department report said the nation's electricity supply has become less reliable because of the open competition among utilities.

While areas such as New England, New York, California, Arizona, and New Mexico have been identified as most at risk for outages this summer, PJM, is also gearing up for a possibly hectic summer.

"We can't predict what this summer will be like," said Melissa Singleton Josef, a spokeswoman for PJM. "This summer will automatically be better, system-wise, because of what we learned last year."

Problems in 1999

Part of last year's problem was high demand, but there were some local distribution problems among PJM's members, who have contractual agreements with PJM, Josef said. There were also outdated and incomplete guidelines for dealing with low-voltage drops caused by high power demands, and lower-than-expected power supply from generators.

To tackle those issues, PJM launched a detailed analysis that resulted in 20 recommendations. Many of the those suggestions have been implemented, and several others are in the process of being implemented, Josef said.

The recommendations included formalizing communications between PJM and its member companies to allow for a quicker response to an energy emergency; increasing staffing at the PJM transmission desk during peak energy usage; and technical adjustments to the PJM system.

Efforts such as the summer 1999 analysis illustrate the benefit of having an organization such as PJM, industry experts said. While power companies know what their own portfolio is doing, PJM has a bird's eye view of the entire system, they said.

Every megawatt of electricity that flows in and out of the region - Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Maryland, Delaware, Virginia and Washington, D.C. - is controlled by PJM.

PJM, which is run by an independent governing board, is one of 150 control areas in North America and is the largest, in terms of demand. The 350-employee PJM is the third-largest in the world behind Tokyo and the entire nation of France.

Nearly 9 percent of the U.S. population lives in PJM's service territory, and about 7 percent of the nation's energy is produced in the area.

PJM's is forecasting peak demand this summer of 51,160 megawatts - a little less than last summer's peak of 51,700, though it cautions that its forecast has a 50-50 chance of being right.

One megawatt can typically power 500 homes. PJM's entire system can muster 57,000 megawatts.

Nonetheless, energy industry experts have expressed confidence in PJM, saying it is arguably the best-run control area in the country, primarily because it's been around since 1927 and has successfully evolved with the times.

"PJM is in fairly good shape," said Quentin Sedney, the principal for Hill and Associates, an Annapolis-based energy consulting firm.

"I have a lot of confidence in PJM as an organization only because they have operated things so well for so long," he said.

PJM's reserve margin may thin out a bit on an extremely hot day, "but that's the whole idea for having reserves. They are there to be used," Sedney said.

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