Thursday, May 2, 2002

Impact of drought on power generation in Northeast 

NEW YORK, May 1 (Reuters) -

Power plants are second only to households in terms of water demand, gulping down millions of gallons daily across the region. Any drop in the flow of water through their cooling systems triggers a corresponding drop in power generation.

Despite a winter nearly without snow, the 25 million residents living in the mid-Atlantic states sandwiched between Washington D.C. and northern New Jersey are in the best shape to weather the shortage.

But New York State and New England's 33 million residents could see a slight drop in energy output due to shrinking reservoirs and river levels, regional energy officials said.

That could lead to problems on days when air conditioning - which accounts for a third of all electricity used on hot afternoons - sends energy use to its annual summer peak.

RESERVOIR CUSHION

Though New Jersey and Pennsylvania are among the states hardest hit by the drought, generators there can tap huge reservoirs set aside just for that purpose.

In New Jersey, homeowners already face mandatory water restrictions, but, as yet, no limits have been slapped on industrial users, including power generators.

"You can stop someone from washing their car and watering their lawn, but to stop a company from using water needed in manufacturing could put people out of work, and we don't want to do that," explained Elaine Makatura, a spokeswoman for the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection.

The state's reservoirs, normally near full this time of year, are currently only at about 55 percent of capacity.

"We need about two inches of rain every week for at least the next six weeks to get back to near normal," Makatura said. Power generation in the state used 332 billion gallons of water in 1998, the last year data was available from the N.J.

Department of Environmental Protection, compared with 466 billion gallons of drinking water used in homes and offices.

"We have more water (in Merrill Creek reservoir) than could reasonably be expected to be used by the power plants during the worst drought on record. We are protected," said David Burd, manager of the reservoir.

The reservoir, which holds about 16 billion gallons of water, is filled by the Delaware River during times of high flow and releases it back into the river during low flow periods to make up for some of the water consumed by 47 power stations in New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Delaware along the river.

Together, those units can generate more than 10,000 megawatts, enough to power 10 million homes.

NEW ENGLAND

New England, for example, which is not suffering from as severe a drought as the Mid-Atlantic states, could see its more than 28,000 megawatts (MW) of power generation cut by 500 to 1,000 MW this summer due to the reduced water supplies, according to the region's grid operator, ISO New England.

The biggest problem facing New England this summer is not power generation, but transmission bottlenecks that might prevent energy from getting to Boston and southwest Connecticut, two of the most heavily populated corners of the region.

Since deregulation opened its wholesale power market in 1999, New England has added more than 4,000 MW of new generating capacity, said Stephen Whitley, ISO New England's senior vice president and chief operating officer.

"Until more improvements are made to the region's transmission system, ISO New England will have to carefully manage power system operations during peak demand periods this summer and for the next few years," Whitley said.