Record heat. Record power consumption. Record power failures?

The fried-to-a-crisp summer heat wave has produced unparalleled demand for electric power, with Americans cranking up the air conditioning--not just for relief but, in some cases, survival.

June factory shipments of central air conditioners hit a record, as did last week's electric power production nationwide. But utilities have been reluctant to spend more on expanding their ability to produce or transmit power because the future shape of the industry remains hazy. Congress and the Clinton administration have been unable to fashion legislation that would restructure the power industry from a group of regional monopolies to companies that compete for consumer dollars.

For now, the air-conditioning industry and the Energy Department are looking to solve the problem from the other end--improving the efficiency of air conditioning, which puts the most stress on the system.

Although consumers pay more for more efficient air-conditioning units, they save money and reduce demand on power systems.

"Consumers should not have to wonder whether the lights are going to go out the next time the thermometer hits 90," Energy Secretary Bill Richardson said.

The Edison Electric Institute, which represents investor-owned utilities, said that several companies set records for peak demand last week when 43 of the 49 states in the contiguous Unites States and the District all experienced days that were hotter than normal. Potomac Electric Power Co. hit a record for peak demand this summer on July 6, in the hot days that followed the suffocating July 4 weekend.

During periods of normal demand, utility companies use their lower-cost equipment to provide electricity. But when demand peaks, the companies crank up everything, including smaller, higher-cost generating equipment. For example, it costs Pepco 1.5 cents per kilowatt hour to operate coal-fired plants, which run constantly. However, the cost triples to as much as 5 cents per kilowatt hour when Pepco adds power from the combustion-turbine plants that run on oil or gas. The additional costs are passed on to consumers.

And when demand peaks, it's because of the demand for air conditioning. "On a typical day for us, when electricity reaches maximum use, about 45 percent of the use is associated with air conditioning," said Mark Kumm, vice president of strategy for Pepco Energy Services.

The last time efficiency standards were set for central air conditioning was in 1992, when a standard requiring a minimum efficiency of 10 under a rating program called the Seasonal Energy Efficiency Rating. That rating has resulted in more efficient air conditioning, said Ted Leland, vice president for government affairs at the Air-Conditioning and Refrigeration Institute, a trade association for manufacturers.

Leland said the association's informal statistics indicated that the standard already has made a difference. "I think the average being used today is a 10.7 or 10.8" efficiency, he said.

A proceeding is underway to set the next level of efficiency, and the Energy Department is seeking to move the process up by six months to a year, said Dan Reicher, Assistant Secretary for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy. The schedule calls for the new efficiency standard for central air conditioners to be adopted in the first half of 2001.

In fact, higher-efficiency air conditioners already are available, manufacturers said. John M. Mandyck, vice president for government and international relations at Carrier Corp., a United Technologies company, said his company produces air conditioners that exceed an efficiency standard of 17.

In the Washington-Baltimore region, each level of increase--for example, to 11 from 10--means a 10 percent rise in energy efficiency, the Energy Department said.

The Energy Department's Reicher said there also is room for greater efficiency in the way air-conditioning equipment is installed.

Leaky or badly placed ducts lead to lost efficiency of up to 40 percent in a season, he said. On an extraordinarily hot day the efficiency loss can be as great as 65 percent.

In the past utilities also have offered incentives for consumers to buy more efficient equipment, but in recent years many utilities have ended these programs as they prepare for a more competitive environment.

The Clinton administration has proposed providing consumers with a tax credit for buying more efficient air conditioners as part of a broader effort to encourage conservation--both to relieve strains on the power system and to reduce harmful emissions.

There are two ways to relieve the pressures on utilities, Reicher said. "You can add megawatts or you can add negawatts," which means cutting power usage. "They're sort of equivalent as far as the electric system is concerned." But, he added: "The megawatt you don't have to produce is often the cheapest megawatt--especially when you're looking at peak loads."

Excessive heat this summer has pushed up electricity usage ...

Deviation from 20-year average

temperature,

June-July:*

'97 -11% Cooler than Normal

'98 -16% Cooler than Normal

'99 28% Hotter than Normal

... which already has been steadily rising ...

Annually, in trillions of kilowatt hours:

1998: 3.2 trillion, up 39 percent since 1985

... in a climate that's thick with air conditioners

Percent of American households

(1997):

With air conditioning

72%*

Without

28%

*Percent of those with air conditioning in the South Atlantic (includes the D.C. area) is 93 percent.

*At Reagan National Airport

SOURCES: Potomac Electric Power Co., Energy Information Administration