No matter when the coal starts moving in the midwest again, there are going to be critical energy shortages for weeks to come in the 12-state region and the federal government has quietly moved into the area to make sure that no individual states get too greedy in time of need.
DR. CHARLES FALCONE, Director of the Division of Power Supply and Reliability of the Economic Regualtory Administration of the Department of Energy, last week moved a staff of one (two more coming next week) into a two room suite at the Canton, Ohio, federal building and began to keep a watchful eye on the power industry.
Although technically it is the responsibility of each individual state and utility to allocate the diminishing energy in their own way, the federal government has the power Act, to intervene in what it considers to be a time of emergency, and order energy to be distributed prudently throughout the entire region.
"We are just monitoring the states here to see if the maximum practical power available is being brought into the vulnerable regions and also to make sure that the power is shared within the region the equalize the shortage," said Falcone in a telephone interview.
"It is our view," he added, "that state lines should be ignored in favor of sharing under these conditions. So we try to steer the states away from a parochial viewpoint."
Some states, Falcone said, are willing to import power - even at great expense - but are unwilling to export to other states in the region that are in even worse shape. And some r egions of the country, like the West, for example, could probably send more power to the Midwest than they are sending, he adds.
Most states are cooperating with Falcone and the federal government, "but there are a few states that are reluctant to release energy - like Michigan, for example," he said.
Michigan is a critical state, Falcone said, since all of the borrowed power coming in from Canada (which Falcone called "a substantial amount") goes through Michigan. "Right now," he said late last week, "they aren't passing any of it along."
What can the federal government do, short of declaring an emergency, to force Michigan, and other reluctant states, to share power?
"We are finessing them right now," said Falcone, "We have the threat of the order, which is our ultimate weapon, and that power alone makes it likely that there will be voluntary action when we ask for it."
Falcone monitors power flow in the midwest on a daily basis. "We know as much as the utilities do about what is available," he says, "and they know they can't fudge the figures on us."
He said that each of the states involved has its own curtailment plan, with slight variations. What Falcone calls the "trigger point," or the point at which state voluntary cutback plans become mandatory, is usually the same - when the state has only 30 days of coal left.
At least one state, West Virginia, has already reached that "trigger point" and cut back 10 per cent, with another 30 per cent mandatory cutback scheduled tomorrow. Several other states, like Indiana and Ohio, are on the verge of similar action.
Most states are using the same type of curtailment formula: Public institutions, like schools, are cut back 50 per cent; business are cut back about 25 per cent and residences are cutback about 15 per cent.
But, says Falcone and other federal officials, a few states are using curtailment systems that may not make sense.
"Ohio has already begun a procedure at rotating brownouts in residential sections," Falcone said. "That seems to make little sense, because it just doesn't save much energy. People just wait a couple of hours, while their house cools, and then turn everything back on, with added power needed to bring the house back to normal heat. And they still do their laundry, they just wait a couple of hours."
Falcone also said that voluntary cutbacks in the various states have usually resulted in energy savings of about hald of that hoped for by the state. "The effect of voluntary cutbacks are marginal," he said.
But the problem looms larger every day. According to falcone and Barry Yaffe, another federal energy official, even if the midwest was taking in all of the energy it could handle from outside the region, that would still only give it about 10 per cent of its need. And, another 10 per cent can be provided by non-union coal, which is coming into the region in truck convoys being guarded by government troops.