Q: Dear Dr. Kilowatt: A couple of weeks ago, my electric clocks stopped cold and I didn't get up till halfway through "The Young and the Feckless." If I'm late for work again, I'm gonna end up as a beak inspector down at the Bureau of Poultry Abuse. I asked my neighbor what to do, and he said move to Boise. Have we got a power problem or what? -- Downwardly Mobile in D.C.

A. Dear D.M.: Sad but true. Until early this month, this area hadn't experienced rolling blackouts in 21 years. Then on July 5, the temperature hit 100, a poaching populace cranked up the air conditioning, and utilities were forced to pull the plug on 210,000 customers. Unfortunately, several key power plants were on the fritz that day, and there simply wasn't enough current to go around. Whole neighborhoods had to be cut off temporarily until the crisis passed.

Mass whining ensued. But in fact, we shouldn't have been surprised. As early as May, experts were warning that "emergency demand reduction measures may be required in the Baltimore- Washington, D.C., area," according to a report by the North American Electric Reliability Council in Princeton, N.J., which monitors the nation's power capacity and security.

In fact, according to NAERC spokesman Eugene Gorzelnik, no other region of the country has as many power constraints as the Baltimore-D.C. corridor. Part of the problem is limited generating capacity. We're abnormally susceptible to the kind of environmentalist yowling that prevented Potomac Electric Power Co. from building new turbines at its Benning Road site in Northeast. More plants will be constructed in accommodating Prince George's County -- but not in time for this year's infernorama.

In addition, Baltimore Gas & Electric Co. has had both its nuclear plants at Calvert Cliffs out of commission for more than a year. One of them is expected back in service this summer. But even so, the local power pool will remain dangerously shallow; and we've entered our annual three-month transformation into the World's Largest Bun-Warmer with less backup protection than usual.

Ideally, utilities need about 25 percent "reserve margin" (generating capacity above peak requirements) to be able to handle equipment failures or maintenance while still meeting demand. Twenty percent is comfy, 15 is worrisome, and 10 is downright creepy.

Using every single generator it has, Pepco can provide a maximum of 5,375 megawatts (million watts); demand on July 5 hit 5,277 megawatts -- 98 percent of capacity. Throw in an additional 450 megawatts the company can purchase from other utilities, and that's a margin of about 10 percent. Worse yet, Pepco can't buy much more power from outside: All the existing transmission lines are already full up.

"You don't like to start a long trip without your spare tire," sighs Pepco Executive Vice President Paul Dragoumis, an 18-year veteran of the local voltschmerz.

Virginia Power, sporting a 20 percent reserve margin, has been able to add 900 megawatts of new capacity. Even so, the company issued a press release in June bearing this peculiar headline: "Virginia Power Expects Sufficient Power Supplies This Summer." This phrasing may not seem calculated to blow you right out of the old Barcalounger. But it's a real pulse-pounder in the current circumstances.

Q. Dear Dr. Kilowatt: I've lived in the D.C. area since Hains Point was nothing but tract housing for frogs, and I'd swear that power reductions are getting worse all the time. This year my PC's been stopping more often than Imelda Marcos at a shoe sale. What can I do? -- Browned Out in Ballston

A. Dear Brownie: Not much. The power level has always fluctuated, sometimes dramatically, and current to your home routinely varies from 115 to 125 volts (120 is only an average, like the 98.6-degree body temperature). But nobody noticed back when your most delicate appliance was a canister-model vacuum the size of a Buick. Nowadays, however, the average home is crammed to the spice racks with super-sensitive VCRs, high-strung computers and microwave ovens that can bake the flaps off a Stealth bomber -- all of which work just fine unless there's the slightest voltage dip. As a result, says Walter Johnson, Pepco's manager of electric system operations, "customers now have equipment that tells them how it's always been." Unhappily, even interruptions as brief as .0015 second (known as "momentaries" in the watt biz) are equivalent to a blackout for sensitive electronic gear.

Even the frequency wanders slightly from the nominal 60 hertz, or cycles per second. (Alternating current is a flow of electrons that reverses direction periodically; one complete back-and-forth sequence is a cycle.) That poses a problem for electric clocks, which use the 60 Hz frequency to govern how fast the hands move. Thus if the frequency drops to, say, 59.8, time starts slowing down, and the boss gets a few bonus seconds on your workday. The problem is rectified overnight: Utilities keep track of the time deficit, and while you're asleep, they rev the system up to a little over 60 Hz until things even out.

Q. Dear Watt Head: I've been working at Snatchett, Bleadem, Caville & Karp for six years now, and a lot of summer afternoons it seems like the air conditioning just sorta dogs out. Last time, I dozed off in a pile of torts and got my nose stuck in the notary stamp. Who can I sue? -- Semi-Comatose on K Street

A. Dear Sem: Nobody. Temporary reductions in power are one of the strategies utilities use to avoid cutting off the juice altogether. Pepco, for example, won't pull the plug until it has exhausted four other options:

1) Turning all generators to the maximum. 2) Invoking "load management programs." This means dialing down on certain commercial and government customers who have agreed to limit demand at tight times, as well as switching out residential members of the Kilowatchers Club. (In exchange for a reduction in monthly billings, KC households get remote-control switches on their heat pumps and central-air units, allowing the company to cut 'em off for 10 minutes or so at tough times). If that's not enough, Pepco will 3) reduce overall voltage by 5 percent -- the fabled "brownout" -- and finally 4) issue radio and TV appeals to reduce demand.

If all else fails, however, the control center can simply terminate power to whole communities at once, producing what are called "rolling blackouts" in New England and "controlled service interruptions" in the more delicate parlance of our local utilities.

Q. Dear Dr. K: I saw in last month's issue of Popular Mayhem where most electrical interruptions are actually caused by delinquent wildlife and arboreal overreaching. It also said that the whole system is run by potheads. Can this be true? -- Overloaded in Laurel

A. Dear Ollie: Asked to name the top conductors of electricity, most folks wouldn't pick the North American gray squirrel. Yet for power purposes, the squirrel is best regarded as a self-propelled short circuit. If one of these little guys puts his front paws on one terminal of a transformer and his back paws on another, you've got a power outage -- as well as rodent flambe. Throw in the odd crow, rat, raccoon and other itinerant fauna, and your whole neighborhood is a power failure waiting to happen: About 25 percent of all outages are caused by animal misadventures.

Another quarter are produced by equipment failures --

bum transformers, distribution-line faults and the like. Twenty percent result from wind, ice storms or tree-branch interference, all of which can short out lines or down a wire. An additional 21 percent are caused by lightning. Cars and trucks hitting poles account for 6 percent; and 3 percent result from vandalism or the occasional backhoe chomping on a buried cable.

As for the potheads, the system couldn't do without them. They're the spiny-looking insulators you sometimes see on the cross members of power poles, along with all those ribbed ceramic-and-metal gadgets. Some of that stuff is built to deflect lightning bolts; most is simply to keep the cables safely separated as they enter the transformer. (That's the big canister hanging on the side of the pole -- the thing that looks like Flash Gordon's trash can with the insulated prongs sticking out of the top.) The overhead cables are carrying around 13,000 volts -- an efficient level for moving power around town, but more than your Maytag can handle without ending up like the Hindenburg. So those oil-cooled transformers step the high voltage down to a more manageable 240 or 480 volts for commercial buildings, 120 for home consumption.

Q. Dear D.K.: I'm sitting there watching the tube when Louise plugs in her new 1,750-watt Gobi Sandstorm hair dryer. Suddenly the whole house goes as dark as the inside of a basketball. So I call the power company, and they say it's not their problem. Well, whose IS it, then? -- Vexed in Vienna

A. Dear Vex: Yours, actually. A little remedial math may be in order here. As you'll recall, an ampere is a measure of the size of the current; volts are units of electromotive force; watts (volts times amps, roughly) designate power. Think of it as a different kind of plumbing system in which amps correspond to liquid volume, volts to water pressure and watts to total force at the end of a pipe.

Most household circuits are built to handle 15 amperes of current on a 120-volt line, for a total of 1,800 watts. If you plug in some gizmo that draws more than that -- or if you connect enough lamps, radios, lava lamps and whatnot on a single circuit -- current will try to flow in at enough volume to satisfy everybody. (Nature really does abhor a vacuum, volts-wise or otherwise.) That would be fine if the wires in your house were a couple of inches in diameter. But they're not; and if they tried to handle that much current, they'd get hot enough to burn the walls down. So the circuit breakers (fuses in older buildings) are set to snap off if the load gets high enough to endanger the wiring.

And they'll keep blowing out unless you turn everything off -- especially big devices with electric motors -- before resetting the breakers. It takes a lot of current to overcome the start-up inertia in motors, and the surge required to get them turning can keep overloading the circuit. For the same reason, it sometimes takes the power company longer than you might prefer to get your power back on if, say, several blocks go out at once: If it were to restart everybody at once, its lines would overload. So it brings blacked-out areas back section by section.

Q. Dear Dr. K: Settle a bet for me. My sister Wanda says a lot of our power actually comes from some Godforsaken moose bivouac out in Manitoba. (But then, she also says she saw Elvis in the Jiffy Lube parking lot.) I say we grow our own. Who's right? -- Baffled in Bethesda

A. Dear Baff: Both of you. It's been a quarter-century since November 9, 1965, when a critical transmission line flipped out, causing a cascade of power failures from Maine to Manhattan and cutting off electricity to 30 million people. Shortly after The Big One, utilities organized themselves into coordinated regional pools covering the Lower 48 and most of Canada.

This system has worked so well that most Americans now rank fear of blackouts somewhere between demonic possession and spontaneous combustion. And rightly so. North America's electrical-power system is arguably the most complicated entity ever built by man: a gigantic

grid of sub-grids extending from British Columbia to Miami and Baja California to Nova Scotia. "Power can flow anywhere," says the NAERC's Gorzelnik. (Even Texas and Quebec, each of which has its own separate system, are wired in.)

The D.C.-Maryland side of the Washington metropolitan area, for example, is part of the the Pennsylvania-New Jersey-Maryland Interconnection. PJM, which extends from the New York state line to the Delmarva Peninsula, serves one out of every 12 Americans through its 13 member utilities, putting out about one-eighth of all U.S. electrical power.

It also has a work pace that makes the New York Stock Exchange look like Geritol hour at Sunny Acres. Twenty-four maddening hours of every day, from a subterranean control bunker near Valley Forge, Pa., PJM constantly buys from and sells to other power pools as far away as New England through long-term contracts or spot negotiations on a week-by-week or hour-by-hour basis. Of course, those deals are eminently interruptible if the seller's own system starts running low.

At the same time, PJM is also micro-managing the instantaneous collective output of its own 500 generating units and 6,300 miles of transmission lines, rerouting power around failed equipment while simultaneously fine-tuning load levels to achieve the optimum economical balance of fuels ranging from coal, uranium and oil to pizza wrappers and lawn clippings. The grid configuration, and thus the price of power charged to member utilities, changes many times an hour.

In human terms, managing this mess is the equivalent of simultaneously conducting two dozen symphony orchestras from a score that's being handed to you page by page, and never hitting a wrong note -- even though five violinists drop dead at their chairs and the clarinetists go insane. All this while broadcasting the concert live on FM, converting it to AM and back again, and keeping the volume level precisely the same.

Except that it's more complex. Each power pool is also handling voltages ranging from about 15,000 volts at the generators to as much as 765,000 volts on the big transmission lines to the mere 120 volts that finally trickles into your household outlets. What's more, every system east of the Rockies has to keep each of those components precisely synchronized.

If two circuits get out of phase, it's like suddenly routing northbound Beltway traffic into the southbound lanes. Just to complicate things further, the largest lines actually carry three separate 60 Hz currents, each of which is one-third of a cycle out of phase. And in some places, incompatible AC systems are connected by converting the power to high-voltage direct current (one-way only) for interpool transfer and then reconverting it to AC on the other side.

Q. Yo, Plug Face. No matter how bad it gets this year, it can't really get hotter than 1987 or '88. So why are we worse off this season? -- Odious in Olney

A. Dear Odie: It's not the heat, it's the cupidity. Every year, we keep buying more electrical doodads, erecting more offices and exuding more condos -- while also insisting on indoor air temperatures below 80. Back in 1970 (which might as well be the Pleistocene as far as power demand is concerned), only 15 percent of homes in Virginia Power Co.'s service area had central air or heat pumps. Now it's nearly 60 percent and growing.

Last year we were lucky, even counting the tree-splintering monster storm in June and a cooler than average winter. In Pepco's service area, total "cooling degree hours" (the hours when the humidity-adjusted "effective" temperature is above 71 degrees Fahrenheit) was 10,238 in 1989 -- comfortably below the 20-year average of 10,556 and a virtual Yukon compared with 1988 (11,569) and 1987 (12,141). Ditto across the nation, as summer peak demand dropped 1.1 percent from '88.

Yet during '89, Pepco's total power sales to its 640,000 customers actually increased by 3.3 percent. At Virginia Power, which serves 1.7 million customers (one-third of them in the Washington region), demand rose 3.5 percent. "In all of the jurisdictions in this area, growth has been phenomenal. Take any forecast made by the Council of Governments and it's too low," says Pepco's Dragoumis.

Q. Dear Dr. Kilowatt: You can't fool us. Burt and me took a long gawk at our electric meter and the thing plainly says "240 volts." But I know for a fact we're only getting half that 'cause it takes our toaster five minutes just to put a tan on a week-old English muffin. See you in court. -- Ripped Off in Rockville

A. Dear Rip: It's a common misconception that ordinary folks get 120 volts, while Cabinet-level Republicans and unindicted D.C. contractors are pulling down 240. Actually, if your home wiring has been updated since V-E Day, you're getting both.

Look outside and you'll see three wires entering the house. Two of these are "hot" -- i.e., carrying 120 volts each -- and the third is "neutral," providing the line that completes a circuit. The voltage from hot to neutral is 120, which is what comes out of most wall outlets. But both hot lines can be wired together at certain points, providing 240 volts for your more electro-ravenous machinery, such as washers, dryers and so forth.

Whatever the voltage, it's awfully cheap. Virginia Power figures show that while demand has risen 50 percent since 1980, residential rates -- in constant dollars -- actually dropped more than 25 percent. Pepco home customers can run 17 60-watt bulbs for an hour at a cost of only 6 cents. That price could rise substantially, depending on how various provisions of the Clean Air Act affect utilities like Pepco, which last year produced 72 percent of its power from coal. (It'll still be a steal, especially considering the hidden benefits, one of which is that the electric light is one of the most impressive birth-control devices known to human- ity. Witness the predictable birthrate spikes following long outages.)

Q. Dear Dr. K: When our street lights went out last year, I called the utility. But by the time I was through dialing, the trucks were already there. Have these guys been watching "Batman" reruns or what? -- Amazed in Arlington

A. Dear Am: Like the IRS or Oprah Winfrey, the power company often knows what's wrong with you before you've figured it out for yourself.

And no wonder: Down at Pepco's underground control center, a phalanx of humans and machines is nursing the grid in a sort of cybernetic synthesis of intensive-care unit and war room. (Not surprisingly, the location of the Pep Cave is not made public.)

A 40-foot-long wall holds a giant electrified schematic diagram of the system; lights sparkle at critical nodes. The center is connected by microwave or wire to each sub-element, and every two seconds computers check the output levels of 40 generators at six plants, feeding back control signals to adjust the flow. At 10-second intervals, terminals monitor the status of circuit breakers and other components at 150 substations; and every three minutes reports arrive from the remotest tendrils of the system -- the 1,500 "feeders" that serve between 500 and 2,000 customers each.

It is here that dispatchers track demand and decide when to bring extra power on line. Short-term boosts are produced by small combustion generators that burn oil. (The hot expanding gases cause a turbine blade to rotate, something like a jet engine.) These "peakers" can get up and running in 10 minutes -- compared with half a day or more for the big coal-fired plants that provide the bulk of the electricity.

Meanwhile, other dispatchers are tracking transmission and distribution, intermittently eyeing the two big color screens displaying local weather radar and NASA satellite data. There is a threat of thunderstorms on 40 percent of summer afternoons here, and utilities have to decide early whether to keep repair crews on deck.

Managers sit at huge semicircular terminal bays whose monitors can display the state of the grid at any level down to individual feeders -- the overhead or underground lines that run down your street. Below the feeder level, Pepco -- like most utilities -- has to rely on customer reports of problems. When you phone in, your complaint goes into Pepco's Trouble Processing System, which groups the calls according to area. Often the pattern of calls alone will identify the difficulty -- for example, three residential customers all attached to the same pole. (Yes, they can identify you right down to the pole number, which is how the trucks get there so fast.) At or above the feeder level, controllers can reroute power around busted equipment using remote-control switches, or cut whole sections out of service.

Naturally, no power company wants to shut down hospitals or folks on home life-support systems; and they try to identify every crucial-priority site. This leads to a certain quantum of citizen mendacity: "You'd be amazed," Dragoumis says, "at the people who claim to be on a secret mission for George Bush or on kidney dialysis."

Q: Dear Wattsworth: My boyfriend is some kind of conservation weirdo, and he said I should change all my lights from bulbs to fluorescent tubes. Now all my furniture's the wrong color and my skin looks like albino tuna. Is this really necessary? -- Blanched Out in Bladensburg

A. Dear Blanch: Your heart is in the right place (though you might want to move your mirror). Watt for watt, fluorescent lights produce three or four times as much light as those preposterously antique incandescent bulbs we keep buying -- which is why virtually every commercial building is lit by tube. But the up-front cost of fluorescent fixtures is somewhat higher than the familiar globe-and-socket lamp, so it's been hard to get them into residential use.

In fact, overcoming price resistance may be the chief power challenge of the '90s. We have developed terrifically efficient devices (since the early '70s, the GNP has increased nearly 50 percent but total energy use has only risen 7 percent); now we have to get more people to use the stuff. A new study conducted by the Electric Power Research Institute in Palo Alto, Calif., posed the question: "How much energy would be saved if consumers were to replace their present end-use equipment with equipment ranked among the top 20 percent in terms of energy efficiency?" The answer: If applied in "every possible case," that effort could save between 24 and 44 percent of the electricity demand estimated for the year 2000. Indeed, "the low-end estimate alone, which translates into 800 billion kilowatt hours, is enough to meet the entire energy needs of the 11 Western states in 2000."

That's why utilities have become increasingly concerned with "demand-side management" (translation: controlling consumer choices) by offering free "energy audits" and even monetary incentives to buy more efficient appliances. In amp-starved areas like Washington, even a hefty rebate for conserving electricity is cheaper than adding new generating capacity; and utilities build a lot of such savings into their forecasts of peak loads. Of course, "If these conservation programs don't work," Dragoumis says, "I'll have to move to Nepal."

Q. Dear Doc: Don't tell me we can't have more power. I've got an extension cord so long you could plug it in in Annandale and run your Water Pik in Adelphi. Why can't the D.C. area do the same? -- Adamant in Adams-Morgan

A. Dear Ad: Perhaps we can. But there may be a slight delay. If we're going to get more power, it'll probably come from the west. Pepco Senior Vice President David Masters explains that "to design, build and license a transmission line from West Virginia to here would take about 10 years. Say a year and a half to design, three and a half to build and about five to get through the regulatory procedures. And that's assuming everything goes smoothly!"

Which isn't likely. "It took us 14 years," Masters says, "to get a license to build a 500-megawatt line only 14 miles long" out in the eastern burbs. Getting certification from the Maryland Public Service Commission eventually entailed 11 different alternative routings and 6,000 pages of testimony.

"Everything we do," says Dragoumis, "is subject to the full Perry Mason litigation." Which isn't a terrible idea, at least until we get better information on the health effects of living near high-voltage lines, which have been implicated in increased incidence of childhood leukemia. (Some new research suggests that even the kind of mild electrical field produced by household appliances can alter the way your genes behave.) Meanwhile, of course, we throw a tantrum when the current goes off.

"We want it all," says Dragoumis. "Ice cream and no heart trouble, power and no facilities."

That's the American way. But if we don't get a little brighter, we'll soon be cursing the darkness.

Curt Suplee is an editor in The Post's Outlook section.