Originally created 07/19/00

Area evading power outages



AIKEN - South Carolina and Georgia are in better shape than most of the nation this blistering summer - there's plenty of power for everybody, electricity provid-ers say.

Some other states are short-circuiting under the pressure of intense heat, heavy demand and a power industry unprepared for it all. Federal officials and the industry blame old switching systems, inadequate transmission lines and uncertainty over who'll be flipping the switches if electric companies are deregulated.

It all adds up to brownouts, "rolling blackouts" and restrictions on consumers to prevent peak overloads.

In a brownout, lights are dimmed. In blackouts, they're out. Rolling blackouts douse electricity in parts of a service area, one at a time. The North American Electric Reliability Council, an industry group that monitors the nation's power grid, predicts those kinds of problems will occur often this summer in California, New York and New England. They're expected to a lesser degree in the mid-Atlantic states and Midwest if heat waves strike.

But here, where hot summers are normal, the council says no major problems are expected. The worst prediction is that power that would have been sold outside the Southeast will be used in the region instead.

"Luckily, utilities in South Carolina have been working hard to keep pace with demand," said Roger Schrum, spokesman for the state's largest provider, South Carolina Electric & Gas Co. "We have been building to increase capacity before it's needed."

The projects include construction to double capacity at an SCE&G plant in Beech Island, set for completion in June 2002.

"That doesn't mean we won't have problems, but it makes them less likely," Mr. Schrum said. "If a large plant goes down or lines come down, we'll have problems, but we're keeping our fingers crossed."

Georgia Power also has added new plants and spent $300 million on new and upgraded power lines, said utility spokesman Tal Wright in Atlanta.

"However, if we had several days of super-hot weather, it's always possible we could have problems," he said. "We're going to do everything to prevent them though."

Electric cooperatives also are confident.

"Aiken Electric Coop does not anticipate any electricity shortage as our system has been built to handle it," said Chief Executive Officer Gary Stooksbury. "We're in good shape."

What's wrong in other places is a blend of circumstances:

Economic growth means new construction, and that means new consumers are being added faster than some utilities are increasing their ability to generate power for them. The U.S. Department of Energy says the safety cushion between expected demand and maximum capacity is getting smaller.

Some utilities have been reluctant to expand because they expect deregulation to hit them hard. Almost half the states have adopted or probably will adopt a more competitive electricity market. South Carolina has a bill pending in its Legislature to deregulate utilities. Georgia has deregulated natural gas but not electricity.

For a quarter-century, Georgia has allowed new industries to choose their provider, but not to switch once the choice is made.

Congress is considering legislation that would speed restructuring the $220 billion electric utility industry. It includes requirements to ensure reliability. And late in June, the Senate approved a bill establishing a new organization to monitor and enforce reliability rules.

But this summer, many states have serious power supply concerns, and consumers are being asked to conserve electricity.

Conservation efforts in South Carolina and Georgia are voluntary, often based on consumers' willingness to pay.

The Augusta Chronicle and other Morris Communications properties in Georgia are among consumers who drastically cut usage during peak usage hours, said Berry Smith, buildings maintenance director for the corporation.

"We're on `real-time' pricing with Georgia Power," he said. "That means our rates change hourly. At midnight, we might pay 1.5 cents per kilowatt, but the rates go up to 57 or 58 cents in the late afternoon until 6 or 7 o'clock. That's when we start turning out unnecessary lights, cutting back the air conditioning and shutting down where we can."

While the consumer's motivation might be to save money, the utility's philosophy is to discourage usage during peak times - one condition that can lead to shortages.

"If more people and more companies would schedule their energy usage, there would be ample electricity," Mr. Smith said.

Augusta Newsprint also times its operations to avoid heavy usage - and heavy charges - between 3 and 7 p.m., comptroller David Pierce said.

Reach Margaret N. O'Shea at (803) 279-6895.