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Utilities: We're Up To Summer's Challenge

Utilities: We're Up To Summer's Challenge

Although U.S. Energy Secretary Bill Richardson has been sounding the alarm all over the country about problems with the nation's electric reliability because of at least six power outages that occurred last summer, several utility executives told the secretary last week at a regional "summit meeting" in Newark, NJ, that they are ready and waiting for the next summer demand peak.

Despite experiencing outages last summer, New Jersey utilities GPU Energy and Public Service Electric and Gas (PSE&G) and New York's Consolidated Edison are ready to handle the load this time around, utility officials told the DOE secretary.

"We're probably going to be in pretty good shape this summer," said E. Ferland, CEO of PSE&G. "We haven't done our job unless we have maintained a reliable system, which we will do... I don't think there's any question that we will have a reliable system [this summer]."

According to a DOE report on last summer's outages, PSE&G had several problems during a heat wave July 5-8, including outages at several substations and on one of its transmission lines that cut power to about 12,600 people for several hours.

Ferland said that four out of five proposed power generating stations (80-90 MW each) will be in service before this summer's peak in power demand. "If reliability moves away from us in the wrong way, we really have dropped the ball because there's no reason in the world for that to take place," said Ferland. "As far as the reinforcements to the transmission systems [that may be required] and we stand fully ready to commit capital as required to build those facilities."

In a statement, he highlighted several other actions taken since last summer by PSE&G. In addition to the new power generation, the company has "speeded up investment in key areas of our distribution" system, upgraded an energy management system to better monitor energy flows and to improve the integration of information with the PJM ISO, and along with other utilities has invested $120 million to provide PJM with the latest computer software and hardware.

GPU also is on top of the situation, said President Michael J. Chesser. GPU experienced an outage during the heat wave July 5 related to the malfunction of four transformers that cut power to 100,000 people. Service wasn't completely restored for up to three days. Chesser told Richardson that in the short-term "it looks to me that GPU is as well or better positioned to handle distribution reliability issues this summer than it ever has been. It has stepped up investments strategically, and it also worked with the [state regulatory] commission to make sure those investments are being targeted where they'll produce the greatest return."

ConEdison joined the club, too. An official said the utility has worked hard to eliminate the problems that caused 68,000 of its customers to lose power July 6 in northern Manhattan. "We have invested an incremental figure of $100 million in our T&D system, mostly in distribution to ensure that we will be ready for this coming summer." He said ConEd does not believe it's appropriate to invest in a major new transmission line at this time.

In a public statement following the summit meeting, ConEdison said it will spend an additional $315 million on a comprehensive five-year program to improve its electrical distribution system throughout its service area of New York City and Westchester County.

"Perhaps we've been a little too worried about this area," Richardson responded. But he added that some work still needs to be done.

Richardson announced six short-term actions DOE "designed to keep the lights on this summer." He announced the actions at regional summits in Hartford, CT, Newark, New Orleans and Sacramento, last week to federal, state and local government officials, regulators, consumers and the utilities.

He said the DOE would do the following:

Work with other agencies to identify opportunities to reduce electric consumption at federal water projects during times of peak demand;

Urge the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and state utilities commissions to solicit and approve tariffs that will help reduce electricity demand during peak periods. For instance, large industrial consumers could find it to their advantage to sell power back to their utility if it would be profitable;

Explore opportunities for the use of existing backup generators during power supply emergencies to reduce the strain on electric systems and help avoid blackouts;

Conduct an emergency exercise with state and local governments to help prepare for potential summer power supply emergencies;

Work closely with the utility industry to gain up-to-date relevant information about potential grid-related problems as quickly as possible;

And prepare public service announcements to provide tips to help consumers reduce electricity use and lower their bills.

Rocco Canonica

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