(By Steven J. Moss) When the clock strikes noon on a weekday, you can almost hear utility meters across the nation clicking faster. During the six-hour consumption peak â€“ roughly from noon to six in the evening, though times vary by location and customer mix - electricity sells for a premium, and inefficient power plants run harder, spewing out more pollution.
When the clock strikes noon on a weekday, you can almost hear utility meters across the nation clicking faster. During the six-hour consumption peak ”“ roughly from noon to six in the evening, though times vary by location and customer mix - electricity sells for a premium, and inefficient power plants run harder, spewing out more pollution. And just like freeway congestion during the height of commute hour, when demand for electricity is highest there’s a risk that the system will become overloaded, sparking blackouts.
For the past few decades energy policy makers have focused on conservation as the best way to reduce demand: weather stripping windows and doors; installing high pressure faucets and ultra-efficient light fixtures, among other things. Although conservation, now called “efficiency,” remains popular, the energy policy buzz-phrase of the day is “demand-response.” Rather than being asked to conserve, under demand response programs energy users are encouraged to change the timing of when they use electricity to “off-peak periods.” For example, families could wait until after 7:00 pm before turning on their electric dishwasher or using other energy-sucking appliances. What’s more, when the grid is under serious strain, due to temperature spikes or equipment failure, homes might be called and asked to make additional efforts to reduce their electricity use during peak periods.
Whether demand-response programs will work to effectively reduce demand on “critical peak days” ”“ and the consequences of doing so on the electric utility system ”“ is largely unknown. The evidence is mixed as to whether or not businesses and families are willing to further adjust their habits and homes to reduce peak demand. For example, a recently issued study by the California Public Utility Commission found that information about the environmental consequences of peak demand doesn’t successfully prompt most people to shift their energy use to non-peak times when asked to do so on a critical peak day. Families don’t seem to want to be bothered to constantly change their daily habits for an additional measure of environmental benefit, or to reduce the chances of electrical outages.
Environmental education does, however, result in an overall increase in energy conservation. That is, while people may not want to think about actively managing their electricity use, they are willing to invest time and resources into tightening-up their ongoing energy demand, principally through switching to energy efficient light bulbs, purchasing Energy Star appliances, and weatherizing their homes. This implies that there’s more squeeze in the efficiency juice, even after California’s energy crises and more than three years of intensive energy conservation campaigns.
Consumers also seem willing to become more actively engaged in household energy management when they’re charged more for critical peak energy use. That is, when called upon on an extreme weather day to reduce their electricity use or face higher utility costs, they’ll turn down the air conditioning or wait to do laundry. However, it’s unclear whether higher critical peak day prices will result in significant behavioral changes over the long-term, or whether people will grow tired of responding to nagging calls to conserve.
Whether or not demand-response programs offer a cost-effective way to shave peak demand has multi-billion consequences. Pacific Gas and Electric Company, which serves Northern California, has already asked for state approval of a $3 billion roll-out of advanced meters, justifying the expense in part on the basis that the meters would enable more effective implementation of demand-response programs.
If demand-response programs enable utilities to decommission large numbers of “peaker” plants, which are necessary to met demand spikes, there could be considerable environmental benefits, as these facilities tend to emit greater amounts of polluting air emissions than “base load” generating stations. But if demand-response turns out to be just the latest energy fad, the costs of aggressive implementation of enabling technologies, such as meters, would be just another line item on our already expensive energy bill. Policy makers should proceed with caution.
Steven Moss is the publisher of the Neighborhood Environmental Newswire.. He serves as Executive Director of San Francisco Community Power, www.sfpower.org.
Source: An ENN Commentary