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Peaking Power Plants

Brian Hicks

Written By Brian Hicks

Posted November 4, 2009

While peaking power plants, or "peaker plants" only run for a small percentage of the hours in a year, they play a major role in maintaining the American lifestyle. Though they go unnoticed for the most part, peaker plants hit the spotlight in 2003 in a big way.

At 4:10 on August 14th, 2003, the northeastern United States and some of Canada dark. In a matter of hours, 50 million people lost 61,800 megawatts of power…leaving New York, Toronto and much of the east coast in total darkness.

One in four businesses lost more than $50,000… per hour, and while numbers vary, it’s safe to say that in the two days that the power was out, the blackout took a toll of about $6.4 billion on the economies of Canada and the USA. Yes, billion with a B.

And what sparked this catastrophic occurrence?

According to a U.S.- Canada Power System Outage Task Force report: an untrimmed tree branch.

You see, every day Americans plug more HD TV’s, cell phone chargers and Nintendo Wiis into the complex system of wires, transformers and substations that make up (*cue dramatic music) "The Grid".

This system is extremely interconnected, as each power plant relies on a number of other plants to pick up the slack when one goes down, by revving up and delivering power to customers of the downed plant.

But this means that any time a major power plant fails due to overloading, it puts every other plant it’s connected to at risk.

In the case of 2003, that domino effect was caused by an untrimmed tree branch that knocked out one measly power line…and boom…The Big Apple was shut down.

One of the solutions to this problem is to fix the grid. Now, that’s no mean task when you consider the billions upon billions of dollars it would take to make all the necessary upgrades.

A more feasible, if temporary solution is peaker plants.

What are Peaker Plants?

Peaking power plants generally only run when there is high demand so that they can pick up the slack, when energy demand is high or another plant/power line is down, taking some of the pressure off of neighboring plants.

This can help to ease the load on the neighboring power plants, preventing them from failing when they exceed maximum capacity.

In the USA, this is most often in the afternoon of the summer months, when people first come home from work and crank up that A/C and start making dinner, all while most stores and businesses are still open.

When power demand is high, the engineers warm up the peaker plants and start to pump out additional energy.

Though these plants usually use natural gas, they can take a more green approach by using wind turbines, tidal current or solar energy, as they are also easy to stop and start.

Solar power is particularly attractive for new peaking power plant schemes because the sun is highest in the sky right around the peak hours.

I can tell you that when I walk into a room, I don’t even think twice about whether or not the light is going to turn on after I hit the switch. Most people don’t recognize the millions of miles of power lines on the side of the road anymore, it’s just a part of daily life.

But the United States’ energy infrastructure is a complex and almost mysterious system.

It’s tough to know when to expect a spike in demand, and it’s even tougher to fix very real problems in the system, but when it fails… it demands our attention and could cost us some serious money.

-Kyle Haas


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