The Washington metropolitan area came as close to a New York-style major blackout during Tuesday's thunderstorm as it ever has, but chances of the blackout actually happening here are "very remote," according to the Potomac Electric Power Co.
Still, if it did, the region would suffer many of the same problems that afflicted New York during its 10-hour outage that began Wednesday night: lack of water, stalled elevators, danger of increased crime and traffic paralysis.
"Mother Nature is an awfully strong force to contend with and we can't say it would never, ever at any time happen here," said Edward F. Mitchell, Pepco's senior vice president for operations.
"However, because of our design, our interconnection capabilities, our pooling and with other utilities, our adequate generating and transmission capacity . . . the possibility is very remote," he added.
Mitchell chose the high-security Pepco control center complex in western Bethesda to tell a press conference that the one-year-old computerized operation can identify problems and take action on them in seconds, even tripping circuit breakers and rerouting power as far as 40 to 50 miles away.
Pepco serves the District, parts of Montgomery and Prince George's County and a small part of Arlington. It also is one of 11 power companies hooked together in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Maryland grid which make up 9 per cent of all power generated in the United States.
Last Tuesday's storm, which dumped 1 1/2 inches of water on the area, was "the worst in the memory of anyone still working for Pepco" and was "a very severe test" of the entire system, Mitchell said.
"It came up in 40 minutes with heavy lightning and winds . . . it hit the entire (Washington area electrical) system," he went on, "but at no time were we remotely near losing power." Lightning, an explosion or some other problem might knock out one or more generating stations, he explained, but PEPCO has excess generating capacity it can bring on to make up the loss.
The capacity is 5,000 megawatts, well above the 3,370 all-time record demand recorded July 6 at 4 p.m., Mitchell said.
Still, because two of the Pepco generators were out of commission July 6, the company bought 300 megawatts-hours of power from the Pennsylvania-New Jersey-Maryland (PJM) grid to satisfy demand.
The Virginia Electric and Power Co., which serves 1.1 million customers, almost had a blackout last Jan. 17, when subzero weather boosted heating demand and also froze out some of the company's generators.
A spokesman said the ones still in operation became overloaded and began to slow down, but so slowly that Vepco had time to send crews out to shut off power in certain areas, enough to ease demand.
"What happened in New York City was similar, but it happened much faster," the spokesman said. If it had happened faster in Virginia. Vepco could have had a blackout, he said. Vepco is a member of The Carolina-Virginia pool (CARVA) and has two major swap lines with the PJM grid.
The various power pools, as well as individual utilities within the pools, have agreements to sell each other excess electricity both during emergencies and if it would cost the buyer less that way than if the while by would add on another of its own generating untis.
"Sometimes we'll sell for an hour, then buy for an hour, then sell for another hour," Mitchell said. Pepco sells off its most expensive electricity and buys where rates are cheaper, he added.
The PJM pool was feeding the New York power pool on one of the eight interconnecting lines the two pools share when the massive New York outage occurred, he said. Consolidated Edison began borrowing power at 8:37 p.m. Wednesday, indicating it was having difficulties meeting its demand, but stopped for awhile.
Then at 9:18 Con Ed began to draw so much power from the one 746 megawatt line that it overloaded, and the line shut down to prevent too much power being drawn over it and out of the Washington area. "Then we knew there was serious difficulty to the north," Mitchell said.
By 9:34 p.m. the entire Con Ed system was blacked out. However, the New York power pool was selling electricity to PJM yesterday morning because Con Ed, still shut down, could not use the power.
The system of pools, or grids, was supposed to have been made foolproof after the massive East Coast blackout in 1965, which stopped short of Washington.
"There are many, many devices that are supposed to isolate these (lightning) problems," said Lee White, former chairman of the Federal Power Commission. "Probably there were 1,000 different lightning strikes on the system last year and they (the devices) worked; but not on the 1,001st."
Outages cannot be avoided altogether, the experts agree. "How much is it worth to consumers to have a system that won't give them 10 hours of outage every 12 years? If it means double or triple the rates, the answer would be a vociferous 'No'."
The PJM system has 54 interconnections allowing power swaps among the member utilities, and the pool itself has 25 links with other power pools across the country, including the eight with the New York pool area. "These cascading outages shouldn't happen," said Joseph C. Swidler, another former FPC commissioner. "The possibility of a large combination of unavailable circuits occurring at once is very remote."
Still, if one did occur in the Washington area, results would be much the same as in New York. A Metropolitan Police Department spokesman Chuck Collins, said all off-duty personnel who could make it to their posts would be called in to guard against "a looter situation like during the riots" in 1968. New York reported 2,000 persons arrested for looting.
Each police district has emergency generators foor communications and have hooked up their gasoline pumps to them as well, to ensure fuel for the police cars. The fire department also has emergency generators in its communications department and portable generators at the truck and ladder companies to allow three hours of pumping air or water into buildings.
Although New York's airports closed, Washington's would not. Spokesmen said both Dulles and National have backup electrical systems for their radar, radio and terminal lighting, and emergency generators are checked monthly.
The Washington Post and The Washington Star could not be printed. Both newspapers have small reserve generators for emergency pumps and fans but the presses could not roll. "I don't know a paper in the country that could publish" without power, said Steve Richard of the Star.
As it did in New York, water would stop flowing in Higher elevations like Capitol Hill, parts of Anacostia and the Fort Reno area in upper Northwest D.C. would be hit first, according to Charles Thompson of the D.C. Office of Water Resources, Emergency pumps running on diesel fuel could supply water for a limited time to selected areas, he said, but there is no overall emergency pumping capacity.
Food stores would start to worry immediately, according to Walter Valentini, manager of the Safeway at 3427 Connecticut Ave., even though frozen food wouldn't begin to defrost for about six hours.
Hospitals have emergency generators but at less than total demand capacity. Washington Hospital Center staff engineers met yesterday and decided that the unit's laboratories and nursing school would close in the event of a power outage so that the patient wards could remain air conditioned. The hospital could run for three days on its reserve fuel supplies, a spokesman said.