Heat, storm cut power to thousands

regional energy use breaks record

July 28, 2005|By William Wan | William Wan,SUN STAFF

Heat and hum combined yesterday to tax the limits of power producers.

Temperatures soared to a muggy 99 degrees in Baltimore before powerful evening thunderstorms rumbled through and snapped the heat wave, but records this week were not in area thermometer readings.

For Baltimore Gas and Electric Co., the record was 7,070 megawatts of peak electrical usage at 5 p.m. Tuesday, a reflection of the hum of air conditioners as people's need to keep cool stretched the resources of power companies and topped Monday's record-breaking peak usage of 6,807 megawatts.

The demand for power prompted BGE to slightly reduce voltage, and heat also contributed to sporadic problems for electrical equipment. Utility crews were wrapping up repairs yesterday afternoon on problems that cut power for about 40,000 customers when the storms arrived - in some areas downing trees, tree limbs and power lines.

Large outages were reported in Anne Arundel County, and lightning appeared to have struck a Verizon building in Westminster, knocking out phone service throughout Carroll County. In Montgomery County, authorities reported hail.

Anne Arundel was hardest hit by the power outages, with at least 41,000 customers affected out of the 87,000 outages around Baltimore at the height of the storms, BGE reported.

Pasadena resident Vicki Norman said she was watching the news on television when her lights flickered. Then came a crash of thunder and, for the next few hours, darkness.

"The only way I'm talking to you now is because of this old phone we keep plugged in," she said as she watched her grandchildren playing cards by flashlight.

"I hope they get the power back on soon," she said. "The kids got tired of the Game Boy; now they're getting tired of the cards. I don't know what we can think up next."

The storms marked the leading edge of a cold front bringing relief from the temperatures for both people and the power companies.

"We're basically getting mild weather for the next week," said National Weather Service meteorologist Calvin Meadows.

PJM Interconnection LLC, which bills itself as the world's largest regional power grid operator, said it transmitted its largest-ever electric load to the region Tuesday. Nationwide, the power industry reported record demand for electricity last week as the heat wave moved slowly eastward across the nation.

"The equipment and system is just under a lot of stress," said Linda Foy, spokeswoman for BGE, which called in a dozen additional engineers yesterday and kept repair workers in the field by extending shifts.

To put the 7,070-megawatt record in perspective, one megawatt - a million watts - as a rule of thumb usually provides enough power for 800 homes.

Pennsylvania-based PJM, which coordinates the movement of electricity for 13 states including Maryland, reported a record of its own - peak demand of about 135,000 megawatts.

The heat and strained power grids prompted energy companies across the Mid-Atlantic to reduce voltage and ask residents to conserve energy.

"It's the heat and air conditioners," said PJM spokesman Ray Dotter. "The lines can only carry so much electricity."

Even as engineers fretted over their power grids, state health officials worried about another sophisticated system - the human body - being overloaded.

With a heat index of 105 at the Inner Harbor yesterday - a combination of the temperature and humidity - the State Health Department issued a hot-weather advisory, particularly for the elderly.

"The body responds to heat, like it responds to any stress," said Joseph Martinez, an emergency doctor at University of Maryland Medical Center.

Sun staff writer Mary Gail Hare contributed to this article.

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