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Nationwide Heat Wave Strains U.S. Power Grid

August 2, 2006 at 6:35 PM EDT

GWEN IFILL: Three Augusts ago, 50 million consumers were plunged into darkness in eight states and part of Canada. It was the largest blackout in American history.

Now, with temperatures soaring into the triple digits from coast to coast during the last two weeks, Americans are again consuming record levels of electricity. Is the latest heat wave placing new strain on the nation’s power grid?

For that, we turn to Ashley Brown, executive director of the Harvard Electricity Policy Group at the Kennedy School of Government. He’s also served as Ohio’s public utilities commissioner from 1983 to 1993.

Welcome, Mr. Brown.

ASHLEY BROWN, Harvard Electricity Policy Group: Thank you for having me.

GWEN IFILL: How severe is the electricity crunch this year?

ASHLEY BROWN: Well, it’s quite severe. The heat wave is extraordinary. It cuts across a broad geographic swath of the United States, and it puts a lot of pressure on the grid and the people that operate it.

GWEN IFILL: How would you compare it to 2003, when we went through that big blackout?

ASHLEY BROWN: Well, the irony is in 2003, of course, it was not a particularly hot day. There was no record usage. This is a natural development; that was a failing in the system, but that had relatively nothing to do with the weather.

GWEN IFILL: Well, when you talk about a failing in the system, describe for us again — I remember at the time talking a lot about what went wrong. It was very complicated, but it involved the electricity grid.

ASHLEY BROWN: Yes, it hasn’t gotten any easier. It’s still complicated. I mean, the problem was, there was — the control room was not getting adequate information in northern Ohio. They were about to pass actually the control onto the Midwest Independent System Operator, who was not up and running. There were some — the lines that fell a little bit towards the trees that hadn’t been adequately trimmed.

And as a result, you had an outage that should have been localized. There should have been control mechanisms in the neighboring systems to prevent the outage from cascading across the Northeast. But in a number of places, it didn’t work. And it moved so rapidly that it blacked out much of the Northeast. In some utility systems, it did work, and they were protected.

Policy changes since 2003 blackout

GWEN IFILL: But as you point out, there was so much more demand in this heat wave than there seemed to be at that time. Is the fact that we haven't seen these kinds of widespread blackouts a result of fixes that were made since 2003?

ASHLEY BROWN: Well, I think there are several things. I mean, one is, certainly when the weather gets this bad, the operators are much more attentive to what's going on because they understand the pressures.

There had been some policy changes, although they're not fully implemented since the outage of three years ago. Two of them are -- one is a federal role in identifying national corridors for new electricity transmission. It's not been used yet, but it's there. And the more important one, frankly, is the fact that there are now going to be mandatory reliability standards for utilities, which amazingly did not exist before now.

GWEN IFILL: We watched carefully a couple of weeks ago when we saw the blackouts in St. Louis and in Queens, New York, that lasted for days on end. Was there was any connection between what happened in those cases and the kind of grid that you're talking about, the interconnection that you're talking about?

ASHLEY BROWN: Well, I think the St. Louis situation was the kind of thing that could happen anywhere at any time, wherever you have a severe storm. It was clearly weather-related. Those sorts of things happen periodically around the country, and we expect that.

In Queens, I'm not sure that it was a transmission problem. It seemed to be more of a distribution system problem. It certainly didn't black out the entire city of New York.

But New York, I should point out, and southwest Connecticut, which neighbors it, had been identified in studies as areas where there are severe constraints on the transmission grid, and that's going to occur any place where you're bringing power over long distances to be consumed at a particular place. And the lines, basically, are drained by New York City, and the result is that the system is not as stable as it might be in other parts of the country.

GWEN IFILL: Is there ever a time, as you're trying to control the flow of power, especially in high-demand areas like New York City and the Northeast, where it serves a purpose -- or in California -- where it serves a purpose to have blackouts, to have brownouts?

ASHLEY BROWN: Yes, that's a good point. I mean, the people that operate the grid have operated on a number of contingency bases. And obviously they want to avoid brownouts or blackouts, but sometimes where it's unavoidable a better option is to have a controlled blackout, where they'll blackout Neighborhood X to protect the rest of the system.

They may use rolling blackouts, that they'll blackout one area for a period of time, another area. It's a way to deal with constraints in a manageable way, not necessarily an appealing way to consumers, but less catastrophic than what you saw in 2003.

Advice to consumers

GWEN IFILL: We have been told to keep our air conditioning turned higher, to close our blinds, to drive at night, not in the day, all of these conservation tactics as a way of reducing demand. Is there a way that that sort of conservation can be sold, not only to the individual consuming public, but also to businesses as a business imperative?

ASHLEY BROWN: Yes, I think there is. I mean, I think there's a real pricing dimension to this. We have not done a very good job of sending consumers the correct price signals to influence their consumption. We haven't sent -- in some parts of the country now, we developed a pricing system for use of the grid that does reflect locational costs and passes on those price signals. Much of the country does not yet have that.

But even where we had those price signals on the grid, in most cases they don't get passed onto consumers. We really need to focus on that, and there are two kinds of conservation here at issue. One is, of course, just saving energy and operating more efficiently. And the other is where you've got times like we have now of a high spike in demand, where what we try to do is use load management to control demand at times of peak usage.

So we encourage people to use at off-peak times and discourage them from using at on-peak.

GWEN IFILL: By, say, charging more if you're running your air conditioner at 3:00 in the afternoon instead of at midnight?

ASHLEY BROWN: Well, that's one way. Another way is using control mechanisms to control the use of appliances. Another is to have industrial customers get lower rates in exchange for an agreement for them to interrupt their service entirely during certain periods of peak demand.

Demand for electricity

GWEN IFILL: How about demand? Do you imagine that people will begin to -- we've all got something plugged in, several things plugged in at once, usually -- is there any chance that or do you see any sign that demand for electricity and for power is waning?

ASHLEY BROWN: No, quite the opposite, although it may fluctuate a bit, depending on economic circumstances. But the general trend, not only in the U.S. but throughout the world, is for demand for electricity to continue to grow at a fairly steady pace. Obviously, if the economy turned down, you'd reduce demand, but in general, over the long term, the curve is up.

GWEN IFILL: The curve is up, and is there a way to anticipate that growing demand to head off what seems to be periodically inevitable crashes?

ASHLEY BROWN: Well, I think you have to distinguish between meeting growing demand, which is somewhat predictable -- not entirely, but somewhat predictable -- and dealing with the kind of situation that we have today, which is these spikes in consumption, enormous spikes in consumption, over ordinary demand growth that are, obviously, weather-related.

GWEN IFILL: Ashley Brown of the Harvard Electricity Policy Group, thank you very much.

ASHLEY BROWN: Thank you. I appreciate it.