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Power Struggle

The scramble to keep the lights on this summer has already cost a fortune and enraged environmentalists -- and it's only going to heat up when the mercury rises. If we don't get smarter about energy sources for the city, in two years it's California, here we come.


It's not the hottest day this summer that Jim Castle fears most. It's the third scorcher in a row. After three days over 90 degrees, New York City's brick and concrete buildings have soaked up so much heat that virtually every air conditioner in the city is running full-blast. That's when the city's energy consumption hits what Castle and his colleagues in Albany call "peak load." And compared with New York's needs on an average day, the amount of electricity required to keep the city running nearly doubles.

As the operations manager of the Independent Systems Operator, a not-for-profit Albany company that regulates the energy supply for New York State, Castle oversees a control room that rivals the bridge of the Starship Enterprise, eyeing the needles drawing spikes across the seismographlike chart recorders that track the city's electricity usage.

If a heat wave pushes the demand for electricity beyond the expected peak, Castle issues what's called

A "max gen pickup alert," ordering each of the ten active power plants and hundreds of smaller generators on the city's power grid to run at maximum capacity. This is when he starts to get nervous: The longer the plants run at full throttle, the likelier it is that he'll hear the alarm that indicates one of the generators has buckled under the strain.

"They're heavy mechanical devices, and when you run these facilities all-out for days, you're increasing the likelihood of equipment failure," says Castle. Many of New York's power plants are more than a half-century old, and tubes can rupture, pumps can fail.

"If we don't act fast, we could see ourselves in a California scenario in two years."

What happens next all depends on how lucky we are. In order to shore up diminished supply, Castle will try to increase the amount of energy flowing from upstate and New Jersey through the transmission lines that run into the city. If those cables max out, he'll initiate emergency operating procedures: First, he'll order previously designated office buildings to switch off some lights, elevators, and air conditioners; then he'll tell Con Ed to put out a news alert asking the public to turn off unneeded appliances; finally, he'll call for a "5 percent voltage reduction," a small-scale controlled brownout that cuts everyone's electricity by a barely noticeable amount. If all goes well, the crisis will fade with the heat.

If demand continues to outstrip supply, the transmission lines that run into New York City are at stake, and Castle will check the map at the ISO command center that displays their status. If he sees the blinking lights that signal an overload, he'll put in a call to Con Ed's West End Avenue control room and issue the command for rolling blackouts: "Time to shed load."

On July 13, 1977, 8 million New Yorkers were plunged into darkness when lightning struck transmission lines north of the city and fried every wire on the power grid. For 25 hours, New York was paralyzed: Thousands got trapped in subways, cars backed up in gridlock without traffic lights, and looters rampaged. By the time the lights went on, three people had died and police had made nearly 4,000 arrests. In the wake of that disaster, Con Ed added new lines, installed safety gauges to prevent overloads from cascading into neighboring networks, and maintained so much reserve energy that for the past two decades, New York's power system has seemed invincible.

By the time California began to implement rolling blackouts last fall, it didn't seem quite so invincible anymore. In November, ISO officials announced that our reserve capacity for this summer would be 5 percent below New York State's reliability requirements. In March, the mayor told a group of Wall Street executives that "no one can tell you we're not in serious danger this summer." And in May, President Bush announced that his team of energy-policy experts predicted the entire Northeast could be facing an energy crisis this summer.

As of now, the city's reserves are back up to state requirements -- but only because of controversial last-minute moves by Albany. These reserves should be sufficient for a normal summer, says Maureen Helmer, energy chairman of the Department of Public Service, but "if we have a very hot summer, the city could be facing difficulty." And it will likely be hotter than last year, meteorologists say, because La Niña has faded.

"I am confident, at this point, that the people of New York will not have to feel it the way the people of California have had to feel it," says Richard Sheirer, director of the mayor's Office of Emergency Management. Still, he's prepared: When hot weather hits, "for the first time, my watch commanders will be checking in every evening with Con Ed to get a projection of how much usage they expect for the next day, what reserves they have, and how close we are going to be to the cusp."

To forestall the crisis, state officials spent the past several months building emergency turbines and recommissioning every last scrap of energy-producing equipment that could be put to use in a heat wave -- including old, dirty plants and even privately owned backup diesel generators that can pump extra power back into the grid. "We're going to squeak through the summer," says Carol Murphy, executive director of governmental affairs and communications for the ISO. "But we have a razor-thin margin." And even this margin is based on a fleet of new emergency turbines the Pataki administration commissioned in November without going through the traditional environmental- and public-review process required for most power plants.

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