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Rise in electrical demand taxes grid

Saturday, June 21, 2014
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Maybe you’re reading this column on a computer or on a mobile device that was recently plugged in to recharge the battery.

Or maybe you’re sitting in an air-conditioned room, even though it’s really nice outside. Maybe you’re still reckoning with heating bills incurred last winter, when most of us never dreamed green grass would return again.

Or just maybe you’ve built a brand-new factory — Hi, GlobalFoundries! — that pulls from the state’s power grid as much juice as a small city.

The accumulated demands on New York state’s electric power grid are growing — and we have ourselves to thank. That growth is increasing the headaches for those who work behind the scenes to make sure we don’t have to think twice when we flip a switch.

The margin between the amount of electricity power plants can put out and peak demand is narrowing, according to a new report from the New York Independent System Operator, a nonprofit that manages the load placed on National Grid, NYSEG and the state’s other utilities from a high-tech control center in North Greenbush.

Two record peak demands — one for summer, one for winter — have been set in the last year, happening within six months of each other, according to the agency.

In summer, blame air conditioning; in winter, it’s the need to keep warm.

More demand records are likely to be set in coming years, with the height of the peaks rising faster than overall electrical demand, according to a report NYISO released last week, “Power Trends 2014.”

The gap between how much power the state’s power plants can produce and its peak demand has shrunk from 5,000 megawatts to just over 1,900 megawatts.

The region below Poughkeepsie — “downstate” to us, if not them — uses two-thirds of the state’s power, while producing only half of it, an argument, perhaps, for the Champlain-Hudson Power Express, which would bring Quebec hydropower to New York City through an underwater cable.

Because of the upward trend, there’s a need for new power sources and measures to reduce peak demand, said NYISO President and CEO Stephen G. Whitley.

Less reliance on natural gas — a fuel now in favor because it burns more cleanly than coal — would also be a good idea, the report suggests.

A big part of what happened to electric bills last winter was that natural gas prices spiked — homeowners and power plants both wanted access to a limited supply — and that pushed up the cost of producing electricity. And the production cost, as we know, got

passed on to homeowners and business customers.

Gas is likely to be the dominant power plant fuel for a long time to come, despite developments on the alternative energy front.

Development of wind power has slowed recently because of uncertainty about federal tax incentives, to say nothing of the objections of neighbors not thrilled by the prospect of 400-foot towers that can be seen for 20 miles on a clear day. (Climb the Kane Mountain fire tower in Caroga and look west toward the Herkimer County wind farm, if you don’t believe me.)

Photovoltaic cell installations at businesses or institutions, however, are a booming business. The state’s NY-SUN program calls for 3,000 megawatts of customer-installed solar cells to be in place around the state by 2023.

Some homeowners are even putting them up in their yards — enough that a growing number of towns are coming up with regulations to keep the panel arrays from drawing too many neighbor complaints about glare or aesthetics.

Regardless of how the electricity is generated, the one certainty is that we’ll pay higher power bills in the future.

Electricity is something you can’t live modern life without, it would seem.

Not that there would be anything wrong with shutting off the computer and television, dialing back the air conditioner a few degrees and stocking up on sweaters while hoping last winter was just a harsh aberration.

 
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