New measures aim at keeping the power on
In mid-July, power equipment in Queens, N.Y., taxed by a summer heat wave, failed, disrupting subway service and darkening homes and businesses for more than a week. On the other coast, the same heat wave overwhelmed the power grid in the Los Angeles area, causing blackouts and brown-outs during the last week of July. The incidents were reminders of electricity’s importance in the economy.
Since August 2003, when the power grid for eight northeastern states and parts of Canada failed, affecting 50 million people and costing between $4.5 billion to $8.2 billion in workers’ lost income, government costs and direct losses, city leaders have become more involved in ensuring a steady flow of electricity to businesses. Some cities are investing in long-term solutions, such as alternative and renewable energy sources like solar and wind power. Short-term fixes, such as demand-response energy use, also are being considered.
The demand-response concept involves installing meters on high-use electrical appliances that, on a signal from the utility company, cycle on and off during peak energy use periods, which saves power. While residents of various cities have used the devices in their homes for several years, commercial and municipal customers now are installing them, too. And, many utility companies are beginning to design rates that encourage off-peak power consumption.
Some cities are considering creating Energy Improvement Districts (EIDs) in which businesses that consume high levels of energy would install small, decentralized generation (DG) units that are built on-site. DG units typically are powered by natural gas or diesel, fuel cells, or in some cases, solar cells or wind turbines. They also can be fitted to use alternative fuel sources that could be found on site, such as wood chips at paper mill refineries or methane at waste recycling plants.
Most DG system users maintain a connection with the main grid and use DG as an emergency backup or as a way to manage energy costs by moving off the grid during peak energy use times. The units may be particularly useful when traditional generator stations may not be approved because of environmental, land use and other requirements. In addition, DGs eliminate huge, costly generators and transmission lines that can fall prey to downed tree limbs.
Businesses in an EID could use government bonds to pay for DG units. However, legislation is needed in many states to authorize cities to form EIDs. Connecticut legislators are considering a bill that would grant that authority to municipal governments and would allow cities to guarantee bonds for funding the districts.
Stamford Mayor Dannel Malloy supports the bill, saying EIDs would improve the reliability and affordability of electric power and could help retain and attract high-tech businesses and jobs. “Stamford is a major center for financial services and a huge consumer of electric energy,” Malloy says. “We need to have confidence in consistent, reliable energy.”
Meanwhile, Stamford has an engineer dedicated to energy issues. It has implemented 44 energy efficiency programs in recent years and is investing in low-energy streetlights and traffic signals to reduce energy consumption, says Nancy Domiziano, energy utility technician for the city’s engineering bureau. Stamford also has applied for $2 million in Clean Renewable Energy Bonds to help pay for constructing two large-scale solar power systems. “We are doing what we can to reduce stress on the electric grid,” Domiziano says.
Annie Gentile is a Vernon, Conn.-based freelance writer.