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Powering through

July 26, 2006

THE THERMOMETER-MELTING HEAT that has cooked much of the West Coast this week exposed a troubling weakness in the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. When the demand for electricity threatened to overwhelm parts of the power distribution system, just about the only thing the DWP could do was plead that users conserve energy.

The problem isn't a shortage of power; there's more than enough electricity being generated to meet DWP customers' needs. Instead, the rash of outages -- more than 680 on Monday and at least 345 on Tuesday -- is because of overworked transformers. These devices, which convert power to the voltage used by homes, can handle only so much demand (and heat) before they break down.

Planners design systems to handle adverse conditions, not extreme ones. When it's more than 100 degrees outside for three weeks in a row, outages happen. All the same, you want to minimize the damage by monitoring and managing the demand for power. And that's where the DWP falls short.

For starters, DWP officials say the main conservation program they offer is a voluntary one for businesses that agree to lower their energy use. So few companies participate that the program can reduce demand by only 29 megawatts -- the equivalent of about 19,000 homes. Southern California Edison, which serves much of the rest of the region, offers a similar program, plus one for homes and businesses that agree to let Edison turn off their air conditioners temporarily when demand starts to overwhelm the area's distribution system. That program has already lured 4% of Edison's customers, saving 10 times the energy as the DWP's effort.

Both the DWP and Edison rely on crews in the streets to detect overloading transformers. When the entire region is sweltering, there just aren't enough crews to go around. But Edison is also developing a way to monitor the demand in each neighborhood remotely, improving its ability to avert problems before a transformer fails. That kind of monitoring, when combined with a more widespread program to reduce the demand for electricity, could sharply reduce the number of transformer meltdowns.

The heat wave also points to another disturbing trend -- the demand for electricity from the typical home is rising, even when the temperature stays in normal ranges. That's true in part because suburban sprawl is drawing people into hotter parts of Southern California, and in part because of the rising number of computers, game consoles and other electronic gadgets. Like Edison, the DWP is upgrading transformers to catch up to this growth, but that's not enough. It also needs better tools to detect problems and curb demand before the distribution system snaps under the strain.

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