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Power blackouts in America's future as electrical infrastructure lags

Thursday, October 19, 2006 by: Ben Kage
Tags: blackouts, power grid, power supply

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(NewsTarget) The annual report of the North American Electric Reliability Council, to be released Monday, states that power plants and power lines are not being built fast enough to meet steadily increasing demands.

The United States is expected to demand 19 percent more power over the next decade, with Canada demanding only slightly less. The current rate of power plant and power line construction will not be close to meeting that demand; utilities in the United States have contracts with new power plants for about a third of the power that will be needed, and Canada has about two-thirds. The report states that the miles of transmission lines -- essential for redistributing supplies -- will increase by only 7 percent.

The report also said that the target levels of power -- meant to ensure reliability in Texas, New England, the Mid-Atlantic and the Midwest during peak days -- could not be generated or transmitted during the next two to three years.

This is not the first pessimistic report filed by the council, but it is the first to be filed with federal agencies and recommend specific action to avoid the consequences. For example, the council recommends utilities be encouraged to offer financial incentives such as more efficient equipment to consumers who drop their usage during peak hours, subsequently lowering the need for new power plants and lines, or rewarding a factory for closing during days when tight supplies are projected.

"The situation has existed for a long time, but we cannot let it continue," said Rick P. Sergel, NAERC president.

The recent restructuring of the power industry has increased the challenge of planning adequate capacity. Instead of a handful of companies generating power, transmitting and delivering it, hundreds of companies now control one or two aspects of power generation. Additionally, the building of power lines has been slowed by the increased difficulty of obtaining building permits.

There is hope, however, which is partly dependent on changes in technology. Right now, grid operators are able to transmit more power through existing lines, plant operators are finding ways to make generators more reliable, and demand for power could be slowed if the efficiency of its use greatly increased.

After the blackout of the Northeast in 1965, the NAERC was established to set voluntary standards for the power industry. In the wake of the 2003 blackout that covered parts of the Midwest, Northeast and Ontario, Congress worked to give the council the power to fine American companies that did not meet certain operating standards, and is now seeking to obtain a similar authority for the council in Canada, since electricity does not stop at the border.


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