Could It Be Any Hotter?

Laura Strong of Connecticut looks towards the National Archives as she wades in the fountain in the National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden.
Laura Strong of Connecticut looks towards the National Archives as she wades in the fountain in the National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden. (Adam Golfer / post.com)
By David A. Fahrenthold and Steven Mufson
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, August 1, 2006

The Washington area stewed in hot sun and bad air yesterday as the edge of a heat wave pushed temperatures into the mid-90s and prompted authorities to warn of dangerously sweltering conditions for the next three days.

The reason for the region's misery was a mass of very warm air, which originated in the Southwest and generated punishing temperatures in the Great Plains before drifting east. Yesterday, as the air mass moved into the Washington area and electrical power use increased to near-record levels, officials cautioned against outdoor activities and opened government buildings as places to cool off.

Today, temperatures are predicted to near 100 degrees, and the heat index -- an estimate of how warm a day feels based on heat and humidity -- could be as high as 110.

"It's going to be a very stifling air mass and a very dangerous air mass," said Ross Dickman, a National Weather Service official.

Pepco and Dominion Virginia Power reported no significant heat-related problems last night with power outages or brownouts. Hoping to avoid the kinds of blackouts that have affected New York and California in recent hot spells, utility officials in the region asked customers to conserve power when possible.

Unlike the electricity transmission grid in California, which has not built power generating plants fast enough to meet growing electricity demand, the regional grid that includes Washington has enough generating capacity, officials said.

"We don't foresee any problems either on our system or on the [power] grid, but we're keeping an eye on the situation," said Mary-Beth Hutchinson, a spokeswoman for Pepco.

Still, officials said, they were preparing to set records for demand over the next few days. Ray Dotter, spokesman for PJM, the organization that manages the electric grid for much of the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic said it expected to supply a peak of 143,000 megawatts of power an hour today -- which would break the record of 139,747 megawatts set during the region's last heat wave two weeks ago.

"Electricity demand records are falling like dominoes," said Tom Kuhn, president of the Edison Electric Institute, an electric power industry association. "The system is being tested everywhere."

In other parts of the country, there were signs of stress.

Natural gas prices staged their biggest increase in more than a year as utilities burned more of the fuel to meet demand for air conditioning. And even nuclear reactors were having trouble keeping cool: American Electric Power Co. shut down one of two reactors in Bridgman, Mich., because the temperature of the lake water used to cool the reactor was so high that the reactor's containment building was too warm.

Yesterday in Washington, the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments declared a "Code Orange" day for air quality, warning the elderly and very young to be careful about going out.


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