07/09/10 — Utilities say they can handle power use

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Utilities say they can handle power use

By Catharin Shepard
Published in News on July 9, 2010 1:46 PM

Wayne County residents are unlikely to swelter through the brownouts and blackouts affecting parts of the Northeast, even though North Carolina is suffering under the same smothering heat wave.

Representatives from Progress Energy and Tri-County Electric report that although their power systems are experiencing high demand as residents crank up the air conditioning, they are prepared to cope with the increased demand.

The 22,000 customers of Tri-County Electric are among those pulling heavily on the power grid, according to Bob Kornegay, manager of marketing and member services for the Dudley-based company.

"Oh, definitely. We're managing it well, though. Our system is designed for the extreme weather conditions we're experiencing," Kornegay said.

The company's 15 substations are operating at "probably our highest peak loads in the last several days," but built-in systems are handling the load with "no problems at all," Kornegay said.

Drew Elliot, a spokesman for Progress Energy Carolinas, said that the multi-state company is also experiencing a high level of demand due to the heat.

"I can say that we always see an increase in demand with high temperatures. Those air conditioners are running," he said.

Even if the extreme heat continues, customers should not have to worry. Although energy use has been high in June and July, it has not come close to touching Progress Energy Carolinas' peak demand record of 12,656 megawatt-hours set on Aug. 9, 2007.

"Even though we set a peak that day, we were not close to overloading the system. We plan for it being hot," Elliot said.

Energy companies typically plan for periods of high consumption years in advance, working with generation plants, transmission facilities and neighborhood distributors to make sure residents will still have power even when the system is pushed harder than usual.

Progress Energy Carolinas operates three nuclear energy sites in the Carolinas and additionally produces electricity by burning coal. Its energy complex on the Neuse River outside of Goldsboro, one of the coal-burning plants, also houses a natural gas-driven "peaking unit." The peaking units are fired up during periods of extremely high demand to provide additional energy to consumers.

"They are basically large aircraft engines, jet engines, that run on natural gas and are able to start very quickly. Within 15 minutes, when we see that demand going up, we can start those units and keep up with demand," Elliot said.

And in an extreme case, if a major generator unit went off-line, Progress Energy Carolinas would be able to pull energy from neighboring utility companies, he said.

The energy is available, but using more of it is still going to cost customers more money.

Weather has a huge effect on a household energy bill. In a mild month in North Carolina, such as April or October, a household may not require any heating or cooling, and energy bills may dip to the lowest or "base" level. It's in the summer and winter months that "weather load" comes into play, driving bills up.

"Right now, 50 percent of your bill is going to cool your home, approximately, in an average home," Kornegay said.

Both Progress Energy and Tri-County Electric recommend keeping the thermostat set at 78 degrees in summer, and 68 degrees in winter.

"Most people don't do that," Kornegay admitted, but customers may be able to save money by enduring the higher setting. On average, a household can expect to save about 3 percent on the monthly electric bill for every degree it raises the thermostat above 78 during the summer.

Progress Energy customers can also opt for level billing, which does not affect how much a customer pays for electricity but does help prevent any unexpected billing spikes during peak months.

"You don't pay more, you don't pay less, you just spread it out throughout the year," Elliot said.

Progress Energy Carolinas and Tri-County Electric's websites both offer energy-saving tips, including using fans to circulate air, grilling outside instead of cooking with an oven and only using heat-generating appliances like dishwashers and clothes dryers during the cooler evening hours to minimize the amount of heat inside a home.

Tri-County Electric is a non-profit cooperative owned by its members. Due to deregulation, the company is able to buy wholesale energy from wherever it is cheapest. A large portion of that energy often comes from Progress Energy, though that is not necessarily always the case, Kornegay said. Tri-County Electric serves customers in Wayne, Duplin and Lenoir counties.

Progress Energy Carolinas serves more than 1.4 million customers in North and South Carolina and also provides energy to customers in Florida.