This winter's natural gas shortage in the eastern two-thirds of the country will be followed by a summer electricity shortage in the states of Washington, Oregon and California.
By next year, to hear the electricity experts tell it, the power shortage will spread to Arizona, New Mexico, Texas and Oklahoma and by 1980 will hold almost the entire nation in its grip. The experts say there is no way out of the coming crunch, which will result from growing population, a growing economy and a still-growing demand for electric appliances.
"I think the situation is worse than most people admit," said David R. Israel, technical assistant to the administrator of the Energy Research and Development Administration. "There are some electric utilities in the United States who fully expect they will have to ration electricity."
Two electric utilities that have told customers they may be rationed this year are Pacific Gas & Electric Co. and Southern California Edison Co., the two largest power producers on the West Coast.
The winds that routinely carry snow to the mountains of Oregon and Washington have blown off course this winter, meaning that when spring comes melted snow won't run off the mountains and through the claims that feed power to California every summer. Put succinctly by one Californian: "The only things white in the mountains now are daisies, blooming early."
California itself is suffering a drought that has already drained water from its 55 hydroelectric plants to their lowest level in 50 years.
The two nuclear plants being built at San Luis Obispo in the north and San Clemente in the south to generate electricity are up to two years behind schedule.
And smog restrictions mean that no new oil-burning turbines can be put to work in the Los Angeles Basin to meet the summer's peak electrical demands.
"Take any energy problem any state has," ERDA's Israel said. "Then double it and that's California."Experts like Israel expect electrical scarcities to reach next year into the Southwest, where a 10 per cent growth in population and a shortage of lakes and rivers to cool electric plants has slowed ability of some electric companies to provide power for customers. Houston Lighting & Power Co. will cool two plants it is building with a man-made lake.
The time is also coming when New Mexico, Texas and Oklahoma will no longer be able to burn natural gas to make electricity, because gas won't be cheap anymore, won't be available anymore, or both. These three states burned three trillion cubic feet of natural gas (one seventh of total U.S. consumption) to make power last year, but expect to be burning one third of that eight years from now.
"Most utilities recognize they cannot rely on natural gas for power indefinitely," said Don Jordan, president of Houston Lighting & Power Co. "That's why we're building one nuclear plant and two coal plants to meet our needs."
Nationwide, shortages of power will be with us as early as 1960, mostly because an estimated 50 nuclear power plants the country once expected to have three years hence will not be ready to produce power. For reasons mostly economic, in the last two years no fewer than 145 nuclear power plants under construction were forced into delays.
The inflation of the last three years has driven the cost of constructing a 1.3 million kilowatt nuclear plant to $1.3 billion from $750 million, forcing many utilities to refinance building costs and delay construction. The economy also slowed down two years ago, leading some electic companies into thinking they didn't need as much electricity as they'd been planning for.
They were wrong. Electrical energy use rose last year across the country by 6 per cent, a rate that doubles electricity consumption every 12 years. Electricity use has been growing at 7 and 8 per cent per year, which doubles demand every 10 years.
Why does electirc demand rise so much every year? Americans have an insatiable appetite for appliances that use a lot of electricity. Color television sets. Microwave ovens. Garage door openers. Food freezers. Heat pumps.
There's anther reason. More and more schools, factories and homes are turning to electricity for heating and air conditioning. Utilities still hook up an estimated 375,000 new homes a year to gas heat, but the gas shortage shrinks that number every year.
Electric heat now supplies half the new homes, double what it supplied just five years ago.
At no time in history was American reliance on electricity so demonstrated as it was in January, when the natural gas supply shrank east of the Rockies and the coldest winter in 100 years turned colder.
The cold froze coal piles in Buffalo and Detroit, forcing coal-burning electric companies to borrow power from Canada. Ice on the James River blocked intake cooling lines to Virginia Electric Power Co.'s Surry nuclear plant, closing the plant down and making Vepco buy electricity from New England.
The eastern two-thirds of the nation kept its lights on by moving electricity from regions where it was surplus to places where it was scarce. New York shipped power to Ohio and Michigan. Pennsylvania sent power to neighboring New Jersey.
The Tennessee Valley Authority helped its neighbors. It shipped electricity to Illinois, Missouri, Ohio, Kentucky, Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi.
Twice, TVA produced a record 23.3 million kilowatts by cutting off electricity to the uranium enrichment plants at Paducah, Ky., and Oak Ridge. Tenn., and to the Air Force wind tunnel at Tullahoma, Tenn. TVA also ran its new Browns Ferry nuclear plant and its 34-year-old Watts Bar coal plant to their limits. Watts Bar produced 240,000 kilowatts, Browns Ferry three million kilowatts, making it second in national output to Grand Coulee Dam.
Still, there were shortages. Voltages were dropped in Florida, dimming lights and producing "snow" on television screens. Cities in Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi suffered rotating 30-minute blackouts.
On Jan. 17, the states east of the Rockies had an electric deficiency of 8.6 million kilowatts that was made up with fast thinking. Electricity in Pennsylvania was generated from garbage. Washington Gas Light Co. burned oil to make gas. Philadelphia Gas Works reopened a plant that it closed 100 years ago and was thinking of making a museum.
There were no prolonged blackouts that day, but electric clocks in the eastern two-thirds of the nation lost 28 seconds because lost power made the generators turn slower. Among other things that were lost forever that day were tiny chunks of television commercials, which are sold on a precise time basis kept by electric clocks.