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Power Struggle

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Unlike California's, our problems aren't simply the result of a convoluted deregulation process. Driven by population growth, a dramatic increase in the use of computer equipment, and Pataki's 1995 cutbacks in the state's energy-efficiency program, the demand for electricity in New York City has surged nearly 10 percent in the past five years. But no major new plants have been built here for decades. "It is more difficult to build power plants in the Con Ed grid than anywhere else, because of three things," says Steven Sullivan, a spokesman for the ISO. "There's extremely limited space, what space is available is extremely expensive, and the resistance groups within the communities are extremely sophisticated."

Since the majority of our current power plants run on oil and natural gas -- as opposed to coal, nuclear, or hydroelectric power -- the price of the energy they produce has risen dramatically along with the costs of those fuels. That's not a shock if you've looked at your Con Ed statement lately: New York City's electricity bills, traditionally among the highest in the country, rose almost 40 percent in the past two years. And the worst may not be over. Based on market activity in May, "I believe prices are going to be much higher this summer than they were last summer," says Bryan Kimmell, president of Strategic Energy Management, a consulting group for the energy industry in New England and New York.

California handled its energy crisis by importing electricity from bordering states -- albeit at exorbitant prices. But the Con Ed grid, which accounts for more than a third of the state's electricity load, can't rely on its neighbors: There are only three transmission hubs through which power can flow into the city. And there's only so much power those lines can carry. Picture a bottleneck in the Holland Tunnel and you'll get the idea: A heat wave this summer would fill transmission to capacity, like the tunnel on a Friday afternoon in August.

"Transmission is a huge issue," says Kimmell. "In terms of its ability to bring power in, New York City is more restricted than anywhere in the country."

In energy-industry terminology, New York is what's called a load pocket, a region where the design constraints of the electricity grid dictate that local generators must supply most of the power -- in our case, 80 percent. For at least the foreseeable future, it's likely to stay that way: Adding additional transmission lines to import more power is trickier than it seems. There are two kinds of transmission lines -- copper cables that run underground and aluminum cables that must be suspended from huge, hideous towers -- and the suburbs around New York City are too densely populated to make room for the former and too concerned about property values to tolerate the latter. Even if Con Ed could find a place to put such lines, New York State Public Service Commission officials estimate it would take at least five years just to get them approved.

"These guys go from boredom to sheer terror in about a second. The adrenal response is extraordinary."

The controversial new turbines cost the Pataki administration half a billion dollars, but they won't solve the problem for long: Based on relatively inefficient technology, each produces about one tenth the energy of a mid-size plant. And if demand continues to rise, they will no longer be sufficient to meet the city's needs within two years, experts say. In fact, ISO officials say New York City should increase its generating capacity by more than 40 percent over the next five years. To do that, we'd need to start building large-scale power plants -- and soon. "They take at least two to three years to build," says Sullivan. "We need to get our shovels in the ground now. If we don't act fast, we could see ourselves in a California scenario two years from now."

From the outside, the suburban Albany building where Jim Castle and his team manage New York State's power grid is nameless, windowless, and completely anonymous. "If Saddam Hussein showed up in town, we wouldn't want him to know which place to bomb!" explains one of Castle's employees. Inside, it's the nexus of every wire in New York. Five men, four of whom are wearing plaid short-sleeve shirts, sit at boomerang-shaped computer consoles, glancing back and forth between the hives of monitors in front of them and the "Big Board," a 30-foot-high, 80-foot-wide concave display with a map showing every major power plant and transmission line in New York State. On the base of the board is the all-important "enunciator panel," an LED screen with red numbers that track the state's electricity needs in megawatts.

Burly, bearded, and jocular, Castle spends twelve-hour shifts leading a team that makes sure that number matches the amount of energy the state's generators are putting out. Since electricity can't stay in the grid, the amount of energy coming into it must always match the amount being used. Too much and wires will melt; too little and a power surge will disrupt the flow of energy through the grid. Because all the grids are connected, a problem in New York could have consequences in Maryland.

To ensure that everything runs smoothly, the team holds conference calls throughout the day with generator operators to assess available supply and with Con Ed to forecast demand. Every hour, it reviews bids from various generators and matches them with wholesale buyers including Con Ed. Every six seconds, it makes last-minute adjustments to fine-tune the balance.

"There's never a moment when these consoles aren't manned," says Castle, peering down from the glassed-in gallery above the floor. "These guys can't go out to the local diner for dinner." If nature calls, he says, they have to make sure someone else is covering for them.

The excitement is sporadic but certainly intense. "These guys will go from boredom to sheer terror in about a second," Castle says. "I've been in there when things just start falling apart with no advance warning at all -- it could be a storm, or some equipment failure -- and the adrenal response is extraordinary." It needs to be. When a power plant blows a pump or a line "trips off" -- not uncommon occurrences -- Castle's team has to reroute the flow of energy or find an alternative supply. Within a matter of seconds.

Since the stakes are so high, Castle puts all of his operators through aptitude tests, simulated catastrophes, and then a psychological exam to see how they operate under pressure. He himself learned to handle the stress in the Navy, where he graduated from the advanced electronics program at 19 and rose to become the supervisor of electronic technicians on the U.S.S. Nimitz, a 1,100-foot aircraft carrier, by 21. After eight years in the military, he got a degree in electrical engineering at Syracuse and went to work for NY State Electric & Gas before helping to establish the ISO.


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