Utilities Say They're Set for Heat Wave

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As hot weather moves East, demand for electricity to run air conditioners is quickly rising. Utility company executives say that as long as voluntary conservation measures work, there shouldn't be a shortage of electricity.

MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

The heat wave that's been baking the Midwest has moved on to the East Coast. The mercury hit 100 degrees today in New York City. Baltimore hit 99, and when you add the humidity, it felt even hotter. The extreme heat is putting a strain on both nerves and the electric grid, but industry authorities say the grid at least should survive this week with no blackouts.

NPR's Scott Horsley reports.

SCOTT HORSLEY: Two weeks ago, the whole country was in the grips of a mid-summer heat wave. Now the hot weather and the demand for cooling electricity that comes with it are more localized. Stan Johnson keeps an eye on the national weather map for the North American Electric Reliability Council. He says while people west of the Rockies are now getting some relief, the rest of the country has more hot weather in store as high temperatures move from west to east.

STAN JOHNSON: Today is likely going to be the most difficult day in the Midwest, and then the East Coast will be dealing with this tomorrow and possibility part of Thursday, depending how fast the cool front comes through.

HORSLEY: Shortly before noontime today, the organization that oversees transmission lines in the Midwest raised its alert level from one to two, signaling a need for increased conservation of power. Spokesman Carl Dombek says utilities in the region began interrupting power to some commercial and industrial customers who volunteered to be cut off. Utilities also urged everyone to take steps to keep electricity demand in check.

CARL DOMBEK: When the weather's like this, it's always a good idea to do things like keep your shades or your curtains drawn, turn up your thermostat on your air conditioning if you can do so, if your health allows and to put off using the high-draw appliances, the washer and dryer, the dishwasher and electric cook tops, until well into the evening. Those would all help.

HORSLEY: Some utilities on the East Coast are also calling for voluntary conservation today and especially tomorrow. Spokeswoman Mary-Beth Hutchinson says the Pepco utility, which supplies Washington, D.C., and parts of Maryland, had a chance today to set a new record for power consumption.

MARY: Every single air conditioner is running and probably running at full capacity. That's why we ask customers to conserve as much as possible in those areas where they have discretion.

HORSLEY: The grid operator for six New England states does not expect utilities there to have to cut power to any commercial or industrial customers, but spokesman Ken McDonnell says operators are keeping a close eye on the electric system, which is more vulnerable to problems during long periods of extreme heat.

KEN MCDONNELL: These are mechanical devices, and heat can play havoc with power plants and transmission lines over an extended period of time. So it can be a cumulative effect on those devices.

HORSLEY: A transmission-line failure in Chicago overnight forced the temporary evacuation of hundreds of seniors today. A Commonwealth Edison spokesman was unable to say whether that problem was heat-related.

The hottest weather in the East is expected to pass by the end of the week. That's good news to Stan Johnson of the Electric Reliability Council, who says the longer it stays hot, the harder it is on customers, as well as electric equipment.

JOHNSON: People are very willing to conserve and we appreciate how well the consumers do. But after a while, it gets old. People get tired of it and they want to put that air conditioner up to full blast, and that's the human side of these heat waves.

HORSLEY: For people who are trying to stay cool without cranking the air conditioner, there are options that don't require electricity. Amber Beck(ph) works for the Big Splash Water Park in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where the forecast high today was 101 degrees.

AMBER BECK: We have nice, cool water. We have cold beverages. We've got lots of stuff to entertain them here. If they still want to get outside and brave the heat, we try and pull them down.

HORSLEY: The Big Splash Water Park boasts a kiddy pool, an activity pool, and something called the Silver Bullet racing slide. Beck says if all that's not enough to ward off heat stroke, the park also has an EMT on call.

Scott Horsley, NPR News.

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