Amusing ourselves to death

National Electrical Demands Soar

Projecting demand for electricity can be harder than predicting the stock market, but the North American Electric Reliability Council tries to do so each spring. In 2003 and 2004, actual growth in demand was smaller than anticipated, but last year’s peak demand exceeded projections by 1.7 percent. Because growth last year was so strong, the council predicted an 0.5 percent rise this year, a number that was clearly too small.

Jim Smith, a spokesman for the New York Independent System Operator, which oversees the state’s power markets and distribution, said: “There are more people, more houses, those houses are bigger, there are more electronics in those houses, and they have bigger air-conditioning units. Computers, plasma televisions, video games, BlackBerrys, iPods – every new gadget you can think of has to be plugged in somewhere.”

In 1978, 56 percent of American households had air-conditioning. By 2001, the most recent year for which government statistics were available, that figure had risen to 77 percent, and all evidence suggests that it has continued to climb since then.

Experts say that for now, at least, the long-distance power transmission system appears to be up to the challenge, though there is a constant threat of local distribution problems because persistent heat and the electricity surging through the lines can overwhelm equipment. That is what happened last month in parts of Queens that lost power for more than a week.

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