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Daily focus: U.S. could pull plug on power
Cost of power to rise dramatically By Lisa Hoffman Associated Press Tuesday, May 30, 2000
You grab a few cubes from the ice-maker for your iced tea, nuke a frozen pizza in the microwave, toss a load of wash in the dryer, notch up the AC, crank the stereo, scan in a couple of photos to e-mail to relatives, and sit back for an evening cruising the Internet.
Upstairs, the kids are styling their hair, playing computer games and listening to the radio, while your spouse is in the basement office finishing the spreadsheet work that didn't get done that day on the job.
That seemingly serene summer scenario is anything but that for those in charge of supplying electricity to the nation.
Energy experts warn that the onset of the hot season, coupled with the recent acceleration in the wiring of America, is likely to bring months of power brownout and blackout alerts in unprecedented numbers.
As demand drains supply, the cost of power for companies and consumers is headed for a dramatic uptick. Peak-time prices hundreds of times higher than usual are forecast this summer in some regions.
Why? Combine a sizzling economy, an explosion of computer users at home and on the job, and a proliferation of other electronic devices ruled by microprocessors for work and play. The result is a ravenous appetite for reliable electricity that must travel over a lagging transmission system designed for a largely bygone era.
Particularly worried is the burgeoning high-tech industry, as well as firms engaged in Internet commerce or otherwise dependent on e-mail and similar online ways of doing business.
Brownouts, caused by intentional cutbacks in electrical juice, also can wreak havoc on sensitive equipment, including that used by everything from ATM machines to auto mechanics. Surges or other blips, even those imperceptible to an office worker, can knock a microprocessor for a loop.
The digital world, according to experts, demands a power supply that is essentially 99.9999 percent steady and reliable. Despite its stresses, the U.S. system is remarkably dependable, but even so, the average residential customer can count on glitches causing a cumulative seven or eight hours without power a year.
That would be catastrophic for new economy enterprises, where a disruption as brief as "one-60th of one second is enough to make everything go blooey," said Karl Stahlkopf, vice president of the non-profit Electric Power Research Institute in Palo Alto, Calif.
In the past decade alone, the power "load," or demand, has increased 35 percent while the capacity to get that electricity to users has grown only 18 percent.
Some technology firms are shelling out big bucks to build their own power plants to insulate themselves from disruptions.
The Energy Department and conservation groups have begun to amplify their calls for the country to cut back consumption through more energy-efficient appliances and power-stingy habits.
Some in the industry are demanding more financial incentives to stimulate investment in the nation's power grid, coupled with fewer restrictions from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.
"We have to build a type of electrical power infrastructure that will support a microprocessor-based society," Stahlkopf said. "We have very little choice."
-- Martin Thompson (firstname.lastname@example.org), May 30, 2000