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Heat Wave Pushes Power Limits

It's already one of the hottest summers on record, and as CBS News Correspondent Rita Braver reports, the surging mercury is triggering concerns about the nation's power supply.

Hot, steamy weather smothered the Northeast Saturday, with heat index readings in the 100s in many areas. Day after day, air conditioners have been well-loved, though with some unpleasant results: earlier this month, at the peak of the heat wave, hundreds of thousands of Americans along the East Coast lost power.

The problem is that demand for electricity is rising faster than supply.

"The good economy for the last seven or eight years has increased the kinds of things people can buy, want to buy," says Ron Burton, of the National Association of Home Builders.

Brand-new neighborhoods and bigger houses are popping up across the country, and the average new house size has increased by 600 square feet over the last 20 years. Climate control for these houses isn't the only big drain; Burton says more goodies - monstrous refrigerators, multiple TVs, computers, VCRs - are going into them.

New power plant construction has not kept up with these new needs. Bill Brier of the Edison Electric Institute says, " I don't think planners anywhere anticipated 15 years of uninterrupted growth."

It's not just that power companies failed to anticipate the economic boom. Plants are expensive to build, and often face local opposition.

"Who wants a power plant like this in their line of vision?" Brier says. "Who wants transmission lines, those sorts of things? It's a tradeoff."

So should Americans push for the building of new power plants, maybe near our own backyards, or cut back on some of the comforts and conveniences we now take for granted? It's a difficult choice.