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LIPA: 'Demand and stress' caused sporadic outages during heat wave

A LIPA technician installs a new transformer after

A LIPA technician installs a new transformer after a 1951 vintage electrical transformer blew out during a heat wave. Portions of Main Street in Farmingdale lost power. (July 7, 2010) Photo Credit: David Pokress

Days after its customers drew record amounts of electricity amid a regional heat wave, the Long Island Power Authority said stress on the local grid triggered sporadic outages despite a more-than-ample supply of power.

Outages, ranging from between several hundred customers at a time to several thousand, were mostly related to inordinate demand on the local distribution system, made up of the wires, fuses and transformers that deliver and regulate electricity to local customers. The system hasn't been stressed to such a degree since 2006.

On Tuesday, amid temperatures over 100 degrees on parts of the Island, customers used a peak of 5,825 megawatts of power, well within LIPA's 6,600 capacity.

LIPA chief Kevin Law said high use continued to stress the system on Wednesday, causing sporadic outages.

"It's not a question of having enough juice," he said. "It's local overloads to distribution lines and transformers" that caused the outages.

In most cases, a blown fuse or transformer affects nine to 25 customers. Over time, the outages "pile up," Law said.

New York Power Authority chief Richard Kessel said the LIPA system, which he ran for a decade until 2007, benefits from ample capacity from undersea cables and a large local fleet of generating plants, as well as a transmission and distribution system that is largely above ground. Still, he said, the heat wave should serve as a wake-up call to those who argued against opening new plants because of moderating demand.

"All it took was one major heat wave to put a pin in the balloon and release this pent-up demand," he said. "What happens when the economy rebounds in a couple of years and you have a heat wave? The lights go out." He said he wants to see more generation projects around the state, including wind power in the Great Lakes, 100 megawatts of solar and additional plant capacity.

But Gordian Raacke, director of Renewable Energy Long Island, a LIPA-funded clean energy advocacy group, said the heat wave spotlights the need to greatly increase solar-energy installations. The systems, which produce their highest energy during sunny summer days, cut stress on the local grid by reducing the amount of electricity LIPA must deliver from fossil-fuel power plants. They also reduce stress on the distribution system because they are located where the energy is being used - in neighborhoods and at offices.

"We need to look at putting solar panels on every roof on Long Island," he said. More solar installations "certainly would reduce the [distribution] bottleneck" caused by heat waves, Raacke said.

Energy expert Matthew Cordaro said other stresses on the system must be watched during high temperatures. Overhead wires stressed by the heat tend to "sag more and will contact trees," he said. "You can have short circuits and that will shut down the system."

Law said sagging wires haven't been an issue so far.

LIPA has other ways to cut usage, but it hasn't yet triggered programs to compensate customers and businesses that agree to curtail use during high-demand. But he said LIPA is monitoring demand and may implement them in coming days, if needed.

LIPA spokeswoman Vanessa Baird-Streeter said though the forecast calls for moderating weather in the next few days, the authority is still asking customers to limit use of appliances to off-peak hours.

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