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Powerless

By Peter Behr
Sunday, December 11, 2005

A 56-year-old power plant on the Potomac River in Alexandria is at the center of a nightmare scenario for the nation's capital.

Ever since the Truman administration, the plant has been the principal source of electricity for downtown Washington -- powering residences, businesses and the heart of the federal government. Then in August, the plant was shut down, not because of its advanced age but because of environmental concerns. Alexandria officials and nearby residents have long detested the coal-fired facility, charging that its smokestack emissions threaten public health. Since August, pressure from Virginia state authorities has kept most or all of the plant shuttered while the plant's owner has been scrambling to come up with a plan to satisfy state regulators and local critics.

The idling of four of the plant's five generators has left the District in a fragile position. Now the downtown area depends on electricity transmitted by two high-voltage Pepco transmission links that run from the interstate power grid in Maryland, then underground to Virginia and back under the Potomac River into the District.

Worried District officials have issued apocalyptic warnings that a paralyzing downtown blackout would result if those two lines accidentally failed together -- an unlikely prospect, but one that has happened before. The closing of the Potomac River Generating Station has also called unwelcome attention to the risk of a blackout from a terrorist attack on the weakest points in the region's power grid.

A blackout could quickly trigger an environmental tragedy, too. Power would be lost at the huge Blue Plains waste treatment plant in Southeast Washington and, unless it were restored within a day, millions of gallons of raw sewage would be discharged into the Potomac and would run eventually into Chesapeake Bay, according to District officials. The two Pepco lines are scheduled to be shut down for maintenance -- one early next year -- but can't be if the Alexandria plant isn't running, officials say. A lengthy delay in maintenance will only heighten the danger of a breakdown.

Thus this power plant at the capital's doorstep has emerged as a symbol of a conflict between environmental safeguards and reliable electric power supply, a conflict that will be sharpened in years ahead by the issues of homeland security and global warming. In this debate so far, every constituency has played its expected role -- environmentalists have raised legitimate concerns, and the two companies responsible for delivering electricity to the city have abided by conventional profit incentives and industry standards. But business as usual doesn't assure that plants will be built where they're needed for secure electricity. There is no natural constituency for preventing a disaster that hasn't happened. Tomorrow's emergency supply may look like today's costly redundancy. And therein lies a problem that extends beyond the plant along the Potomac.

The U.S. power grid got little attention until the blackout of August 2003, which started when a few power lines in Ohio sagged into trees and shorted, cascading into an outage across an eight-state area of the northeastern United States, affecting 50 million residents. The blackout exposed the grid's vulnerability to negligence, accidental failures and terrorist attack.

Like other metropolitan areas, the Washington region relies on a mixture of electric power that is either produced nearby or imported from more distant power plants over the Eastern Interconnection, the grid of high-voltage transmission lines stretching from the Atlantic coast to the Rockies. The grid in the mid-Atlantic states is operated by PJM Interconnection in Valley Forge, Pa., which selects which plants will be running during each day, with the more efficient ones called on first. A ring of high-voltage lines encircles most of the metropolitan area like a wheel. Smaller high-voltage lines, like spokes, carry power into the District. The spokes don't meet in the center, however, given the obstacles to moving high-voltage power through neighborhoods. That means that downtown Washington depends on power flowing underground from Maryland across the Potomac to Virginia and then back into the city.

More and more cities across the United States could find themselves in this position. Currently, there is no coherent policy for replacing the nation's old coal-fired generating units -- including those on the Potomac -- with more costly new designs that can limit greenhouse gas emissions. And the next generation of coal-burning power plants and other generating stations are not going to be built near metropolitan areas, leaving Washington and other cities even more dependent on long-distance power transmission systems.

The dispute over the Potomac plant illustrates the disarray in our national policy on future power supplies. The dispute is now before the Energy Department, which has taken the case away from another agency, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. The department is expected to order all or most of the plant's generators back online, burning cleaner coal, to help manage the blackout risk until new power transmission lines can be built to provide more outside power supplies. But if Alexandria or Virginia state officials took the issue to court, an impasse could continue. Each passing day would bring the District closer to summer heat waves and peak demands for electricity that would strain the local power system to its limits, increasing the threat of an equipment breakdown that could trigger the blackout if the Alexandria plant is not operating.

Government and industry officials are beginning to zero in on critical weaknesses in the power grid, experts say, but four years after the 9/11 attacks, the flaws haven't been addressed because responsibility for safeguarding public infrastructure is so divided.

The government isn't the only one that is falling short in dealing with the security and reliability of the nation's electricity supplies. The market is falling short, too. In most of the mid-Atlantic area and other regions where electricity deregulation is in place, key decisions about future power supplies are largely determined by power companies' short-term strategies to maximize opportunities and profit -- the same market strategies that govern most industries. Electric power, however, is not just another industry to the customers who depend on electricity for lighting, heating and air conditioning, and running their businesses.


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