An inside look at PJM, which controls the flow of your electricity

It’s in a nondescript office park in Norristown, just off the King of Prussia exit of the Turnpike.

But as unremarkable as PJM is from the outside, it’s a modern marvel on the inside.

“It’s the largest grid in the world,” said Robert Powelson, Chairman of the Public Utility Commission, who accompanied abc27 on a recent tour of the facility.

Electricity for 13 states and Washington, D.C. is controlled from this Philly suburb. $40 billion dollars a year is generated at PJM, making it the largest wholesale market in the world.

“There’s never been a blackout in the PJM footprint,” Powelson notes.

Security is almost non-existent outside, but tight inside. We must pass several checkpoints and leave our cell phones at the door. No cameras or recording devices are permitted.

It’s an impressive control room of monitors, maps and manpower. Every contributing power plant on the grid is lit up and observed, its input and output controlled. It’s a real power pirouette, ordering up enough juice to keep everyone’s lights on but not too much as to be wasteful.

“You want to figure out exactly what the demand on the system is going to be, schedule the right resources to be online when you need em, take em off when you don’t need them,” explained Mike Bryson, Operations Manager at PJM. “And while you’re doing that, making sure you’re that you’re scheduling the most economic, the cheapest resource next, so it reduces impacts to our customers.”

Bryson won’t soon forget January 7th. He still shudders when asked about the system-wide low temperatures that caused record demand. PJM blew through its cheaper power sources to keep up and was forced to use the expensive stuff. The aftermath was skyrocketing electric bills and fingers being pointed at PJM.

“We are suffering the complaints, and having to deal with the complaints and the heartaches of customers, primarily because of failings in the wholesale electricity market,” said PUC Commissioner Jim Cawley at a public hearing.

Cawley blames PJM for not inspecting companies that are paid to be ready to deliver cheaper power when needed. Twenty-two percent of them were off-line January 7.

“They are paid to stand by and be ready to provide power when needed,” Cawley said with a stern and emotional voice. “PJM, for whatever reason, stopped testing a number of these people receiving capacity payments and almost a third of them did not deliver when the power was needed.”

Bryson concedes Cawley’s point and says PJM is investigating.

“How come those generators were out when we needed them the most? That’s probably the one we’ll spend a lot of time over the next nine months fixing,” he said.

While PJM works on its fixes, consumers are left to wonder if the market was fixed. Cheaper power not showing up, forcing the more expensive stuff into play. A preliminary report by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) suggests no wrongdoing.

“At first glance, they don’t see any market manipulation,” Powelson said, “but they’re gonna be doing a deeper dive looking into this.”

“That’s what Enron did in California back in the 1990’s,” said reporter Dave DeKok, who covered the PUC for the Patriot-News during deregulation. “They (Enron) took plants off line to cause the price of electricity to go up. Did that happen here? Probably not. But you just never know. It’s that nagging doubt and nobody’s really looking. You’ll never get an answer to that question.”

Even the guy in charge of all this power understands why people are left wondering if somebody has too much.

“It’s something I think should be concerning people to make sure there was no kind of manipulation of the market,” Bryson said.

He said possible changes for next winter are more thorough inspections of companies promising to supply power and accepting capacity payments. Tougher penalties for companies promising power and not delivering are also a possibility.

Winter is typically not PJM’s most taxing season. Summer is, because all air conditioners run on electricity, while people can heat their homes with natural gas and oil.

But January 2014 broke demand records. Typically, in the vast PJM footprint, there are cold areas and warmer areas and, according to Bryson, the grid can borrow power from a warmer (lower demand) spot to help in the colder (higher demand) areas.

This January, the entire footprint was cold, pushing demand through the roof and prices with it.

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