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Region avoids major blackouts as it sets a power-use record

New England set a record for electricity use yesterday as the region avoided major blackouts during sweltering weather, said Independent System Operator New England, the Holyoke-based organization that runs the six-state power grid.

Preliminary estimates indicated that electricity use peaked at 27,374 megawatts yesterday, exceeding the previous record-day peak of 26,885 megawatts, set July 27 last year.

``Temperatures in the mid 90s and high humidity combined to drive electricity use to record levels," said ISO New England's senior vice president, Stephen Whitley. ``Despite the new record, power supplies were adequate to meet consumers' electricity needs."

With cooler temperatures expected today, it appeared that New England had weathered a potential energy crisis. Several industry observers noted that the region's system is near capacity at a time when demand is increasing, because consumers and businesses are using more air conditioners and other electrical devices.

``Everybody is getting flat-screen TVs, which consume four times as much electricity as a regular TV," said David Brewster, president of EnerNOC, a Boston firm that can provide ISO New England and other customers with access to reserves of power.

Between 2000 and 2005, the demand for electricity in Boston increased by 20 percent, according to NStar , the utility serving Boston and 80 other Eastern Massachusetts cities and towns.

With the supply of electricity stagnant, New England will face an increased reliance on emergency actions to balance supply and demand as early as 2007 , ISO New England said. Emergency actions could include rolling blackouts.

ISO New England is doing a good job of managing the grid, said Kevin Clements , a professor of electrical and computer engineering at Worcester Polytechnic Institute . ``But we're right up against the limits."

Brewster said, ``The system as a whole has the capacity to meet peak demand, but it doesn't have contingencies if something goes wrong," such as a power plant going offline. ``You want to have redundancies in the system, and we don't have the backup we need," he said.

Some relief may be on the way. Next month, NStar expects to begin using a new transmission line that will help bring surplus capacity from other parts of the region to Boston.

``That will help take pressure off," NStar spokeswoman Caroline Allen said.

While there have been scattered outages in recent days, she said, ``the system has been holding up extremely well."

Chris Reidy can be reached at reidy@globe.com.

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