Correction to This Article
This article includes an incorrect figure for the increase in the Southern Maryland Electric Cooperative's rates between 2001 and 2008. The rates increased about 72 percent during that period, not 157 percent. The figure given for the region's average rate increase was also wrong. The number is about 47 percent, not 52 percent.
Energy Year of Decisions

Threat of Power Shortages Generating New Urgency

Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, February 3, 2008; Page A01

One in an occasional series

Electric power has already become painfully expensive in Washington and its suburbs. Now, local utilities say, it could become something even worse: scarce.

With its humming data centers and air-conditioned mansions, the region is using 18 percent more electricity than in 2001. And as demand has gone up, so have prices. Some homeowners have seen their rates jump by half or more.

Utility and government officials say the region has to face the idea that its demand for electricity could overtake the supply. In a little more than three years, they say, lights could flicker off in rolling blackouts.

To avert such shortages, electric companies have proposed a transmission line through the Loudoun countryside, a third nuclear reactor in Calvert County and other controversial projects. Even if the projects are built, they won't come online for years. Environmentalists say the region could solve many of its problems simply by conserving energy.

This year, leaders in Maryland, Virginia and the District will all face crucial decisions affecting the power supply. The main question: Given that Washington loves electric power as much as other types of power, could the region make do with less of it?

"We cannot do nothing," said Jone-Lin Wang, a Washington-based senior director at the analysis firm Cambridge Energy Research Associates. "If you do nothing, and the demand for power continues to grow, then we don't have enough supply."

This year, local governments have been wrestling with questions about how to get electricity, how to save it and how much it should cost. The D.C. Council is considering an investment in solar and wind power. In Maryland, Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) and the General Assembly are seeking ways to keep rates down.

And in Virginia, power giant Dominion has battled environmental groups over plans for a line connecting the region with power from the Midwest. The project's opponents say it will cut an ugly swath through Appalachian vistas. They also say the power company is exaggerating the need for the project and ignoring ways to save energy and money.

"They have absolutely no interest in anything that will reduce demand," said Christopher Miller, president of the Piedmont Environmental Council, a group opposed to the line. Because the power companies are pushing ahead with the proposal anyway, he said, "something that a lot of people value for its open space and beauty is being put at risk."

For many residents, the best clue that the region is having power problems comes in a little envelope every month. The region's major electric utilities have raised their rates an average of 52 percent since 2001, with the largest increases coming in Maryland. Baltimore Gas and Electric rates rose 74 percent in that time; Pepco's Maryland rates, 78 percent; and Southern Maryland Electric Cooperative rates, 157 percent

In the District, Pepco rates went up 49 percent. "You spend less on other things and you save less," said Ann Loikow, a retiree in the District, whose December electricity bill was $58 more last year than the year before. She added, "I find myself rarely going into stores except for groceries and hardware."

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