Power problems could spread this summer

The Associated Press
Monday February 26, 2001

LOS ANGELES — As Californians brace for a summer of anticipated power shortages, their neighbors should be ready to share the pain, experts warn. 

“It could get bad all over the West this summer,” said Craig Pirrong, a finance professor who specializes in energy markets at Washington University in St. Louis. “The likelihood of outages is still greatest in California, because that’s where the major deficiency of generating facilities are. 

“But things over the entire West could be dicey this summer.” 

California twice endured short periods of targeted blackouts in January and has been coping with short power supplies for weeks. As demand rises with the temperature, energy experts predict the state will run short on power supply again, particularly in the hottest months. 

The region most likely to face similar problems is the Pacific Northwest, although other western states could be included because they share the same transmission grid. 

Washington, Oregon, Idaho and western Montana depend heavily on hydroelectric power, an energy source facing a double challenge this year. 

The Portland-based Bonneville Power Authority has been forced to draw down its reservoirs in recent months under a federal order requiring energy suppliers to sell to power-starved California. The order has since been lifted, but reservoir levels have been left perilously low as a result. 

Because states west of the Rockies are linked through the same transmission system, problems on the grid in one area also could mean a greater likelihood of disruptions elsewhere. 

That could leave states such as Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah and Arizona, considered fairly safe from supply problems or soaring prices this summer, more vulnerable to outages. 

The West’s power grid is one giant circuit that works best when reserves allow power to flow at full capacity. 

If the grid section in one state is operating with low or no reserves, as it’s expected to do this summer in California, that state has less of an ability to handle emergencies, such as shorts or unexpected blackouts. 

Without energy reserves, the state could institute targeted blackouts to keep the lights on statewide. If problems are severe, the state would suck energy from the rest of the grid, potentially leading to shortages elsewhere. 

“It’s a scary thought, but the electricity is tied together like a bunch of high-tension rubber bands,” said Kellan Fluckiger, chief operating officer for California’s Independent System Operator, which manages 75 percent of the state’s transmission system. “If you fool with the tension in one place, it fools with the tension on the other end.” 

The ripple effect could hinder transmission capabilities in other states. So even though Arizona, for example, might have plenty of power, it couldn’t deliver it. 

“A limited blackout could become fairly widespread,” said Dick Watson, director of the power division of the Northwest Power Planning Council, a policy advisory board. 

A separate grid serves the East, but supply problems also are emerging in some areas there. The New York Power Authority recently spent $500 million for 11 generators to meet anticipated summer demand during peak periods. The generators will be online in New York and Long Island by June, a spokesman said. 

A nationwide shortage of natural gas, one of the main fuels firing power plants that generate electricity, also could push summer cooling bills higher across the country. 

In California, state officials are taking steps to avoid widespread problems this summer. 

Gov. Gray Davis plans to have enough power plants built in the next few months to meet demand during peak use times. 

Peak demand for power is expected to exceed supplies from May through September, according to a report by the Independent System Operator. The projected deficit will range from 3,030 megawatts in May to as high as 6,815 megawatts in June. It takes about 1,000 megawatts to serve a city the size of Seattle. 

Davis’ goal will be tough to meet by summer, however, said Judah Rose, managing director of ICF Consulting, a Washington, D.C., firm specializing in energy issues. 

“I have never seen any place in the world that has been able to solve that kind of problem in a couple of months,” he said.