July 7, 1999
JIM LEHRER: Heat and power: The major heat wave in the east has raised some large questions about electrical power. Llewellyn King is here to sort through the questions and the answers. He's the publisher of "Energy Daily," a newsletter that covers the energy industry. Welcome, Mr. King.
LLEWELLYN KING, The Energy Daily: Thank you.
JIM LEHRER: What causes these power failures?
LLEWELLYN KING: Well, quite simply a system that's overstretched, enormous demand. Electricity is an on-demand commodity. It's like air traffic control. You can't store it, you can't ration it as you can traffic by traffic jams. And people need it when they need it. And it's a very sophisticated system to achieve that, with base loading and then various little bits that come up in increments. But at some point, the demand, when you have abhorrent weather can exceed the available supply, and there are tourniquets in the supply on transmission and sometimes on generation. Overall, I'd say it's a miracle that we got through this dreadful heat so well with, although 400,000 people may be a lot of people, as a percentage of the East Coast population, it's quite modest.
JIM LEHRER: This was an -- in power terms this was a record-setting area for this kind of heat, correct?
LLEWELLYN KING: Absolutely. I think so. I haven't actually seen any immediate data on it, but we believe that it was the highest, over the largest area. Now, if it had been confined, say to, to Washington, Maryland, New Jersey, they would have been able to wield in sufficient power -
JIM LEHRER: We have a map of this.
LLEWELLYN KING: -- and there would have been no problem.
JIM LEHRER: We have a map up there that shows the extent of where that heat was. From that bottom down there into the top, all of that area had temperatures at 100, pretty close to 100 or above.
LLEWELLYN KING: But remember a huge horseshoe behind it was also very hot. It wasn't 100 and above, but going way back into the Midwest, there were very high temperatures. And how they do this, it's really quite fascinating, is they wield it.
JIM LEHRER: They what, wield -
LLEWELLYN KING: This is a term of art. They bump it down the line. So if New York City is buying electricity from Canada, well, its not actually getting the electricity; it's getting the electricity in Boston pushed down to Connecticut, some more electricity pushed down. It's called wheeling. It's how it's moved. You don't -- it's fungible. It's rather like sending money by wire. You don't get the exact money that you left at the counter, but somebody gets money. And this system is called wheeling and works very well. They're inter-tied. And they have now very sophisticated trading systems for the financial end and for the dispatch of it. But at some point, physically they cannot move any more, and sometimes they can't make any more. And a combination of those or just one of them will cause outages.
JIM LEHRER: Now, let's go back to the system. Let's say that you're in Washington, D.C., where you and I are sitting right now, and the people responsible for supplying the electricity to Washington, D.C. suddenly there's this huge demand as a result of a heat wave, who do they. -- how do they get the heat -- how do they get the electricity here that wasn't planned on? In other words, they hadn't planned on it, there's an emergency, where do they get it?
LLEWELLYN KING: Well, they look around through their computers as to whose got any surplus.
JIM LEHRER: These are people sitting in a room somewhere.
LLEWELLYN KING: And they buy it. There may be surplus electricity in Alabama. And this whole system of bumping it up goes into operation instantly so that there's no interruption. There may be a surplus out at the TVA. It depends on the lines. Now, ahead, in the future, these outages could become more serious because it's so hard to build transmission lines. You don't want one in your garden, I don't want one in my garden, we don't want one down by the school. The big problem for the future, and we've come through this miraculously this time-- is that if we don't build the transmission lines, this marvelous system of bumping electricity around the whole nation won't work anymore. It's like if there's not enough highways, it doesn't matter how many trucks you've got.
JIM LEHRER: Sure. So there's not a power -- there's not a problem generating the needed electricity to take care of these -
LLEWELLYN KING: Well, it's a mixed problem. Sometimes there is. But primarily all the people in the industry that I talked to are saying that the problem ahead is in transmission. We have new technology for generating. It's called gas turbines. They're actually jet engines, the same thing you have in an airplane, on the ground generating electricity. They're very efficient, and you can locate them locally, and you can put them in quite quickly, three years, a nuclear power plant might take you twenty. But utilities have a problem, and that is they're up against public policy all over the place and different policies, local policies, national policy, air-quality policy, transmission policy. And now they're being deregulated. So they really are all over the lot, and they don't know who is going to take them to court, stop them building this power line, stop them putting in that, and then when we have a crisis like this, there is a tendency to go out and say, "Who failed?" Who didn't do it?" We're rather good at that in Washington, you may have noticed. Find the finger and point it. I think we've seen a really good system working really well, but it may not continue to do so unless somehow we get some criteria for building new power lines that satisfies everybody, and they get on and build them.
JIM LEHRER: All right. Now, that's another part of the thing, but the system itself, is it a private system? Is it a public system? Is it a national system? Is it an ad hoc system? Who runs this thing?
LLEWELLYN KING: Ad hoc.
JIM LEHRER: In other words, the guy who needs the power in Washington, he has to make his own deal with the person in Alabama, right?
LLEWELLYN KING: No. They operate through pools, power pools. They get together, they have central dispatching systems with consoles that look not dissimilar from this desk where all of this power can be traced and moved. The one in Washington primarily is PMJ, and there are a number of these power pools.
JIM LEHRER: That's Potomac -
LLEWELLYN KING: Maryland-New jersey. But it actually is bigger than that because it includes Pennsylvania. I guess they ran out of initials or they didn't want the acronym to get too big.
JIM LEHRER: All right.
LLEWELLYN KING: There are pools. It's very much like air traffic control. I mentioned that before. You know, the controller at Washington's Dulles Airport sends an aircraft to Los Angeles-- is in a real time system sending it to a real time system that's going to receive it, and there are ways of communicating by computer, et cetera, so that when that aircraft arrives in Los Angeles air space -- well, its not that dissimilar with electricity, but the same discipline is there. You can't store it, you can't track it. Electricity is even more well timed than airplanes. You can put an airplane in a holding pattern for a short while. You can't put electricity into any kind of holding pattern, so it always has to be an overbuilt system -- an overbuilt system for a commodity, you know, if we think onions are going to be more expensive next year, we plant some more but if we don't have them, it's not going to be the end of the world. If we don't plant the electricity and we don't have it when it's 103 degrees, you'd think it's the end of the word. We're very used to it, very dependent on it.
JIM LEHRER: And your prediction is this could get worse before it gets better, more brownouts, more blackouts, more rolling, all kinds of things?
LLEWELLYN KING: The rolling and the brownouts are the rationing. This is the utility before its system fails-- because these are very complex inter-type systems. So, I hesitate to suggest that you remember the blackout in 1965 in New York, but there was one, take it from me-- and since then we've learned a lot about this, that it's better to institute an incident and say, "Sorry, we're going to have to black out the W ETA studio in Washington than to let it -- the system collapse," as what happened starting in Canada, it rolled all down the East Coast. We have a wonderful electric supply system. Some of it is owned by private companies about 80 percent of it, some of it by municipalities, some of it really dates from the Roosevelt era with the TVA. And if you live in Washington, you're surrounded by rural electric cooperatives, often in areas that are not very rural anymore at all, which are basically locally owned. And the integration is pretty good. The problem is the regulatory integration is pretty bad, so that if-- to pick a city, call it Salem. Lots of places are called Salem. Call it Salem. If Salem doesn't want power lines and it's abutting Smithsville and they don't want power lines, you then start this lineout and you try to get it around there. But the guys over here in Jonesville say, "No, no, though they're the beneficiaries, why is it going around?" And this is happening many tiered across the country. It could take 20 years to build nine miles of power line, and that is why your system is getting stretched.
JIM LEHRER: All right. Llewellyn King, thank you very much.
LLEWELLYN KING: Thank you very much.