On a hot day in August, my seriously adorable five year-old nephew Ezra tried to turn on the television. His slightly more serious but equally adorable seven year-old brother Micah said with gravity, “No Ezra, don’t turn that on. Today is the day that we are saving electricity.”
It’s an interesting quirk of our electrical system that during the hottest days of the summer, even if you run the air conditioning at full blast and manage to turn on all of your energy hogging electronics between the hours of midnight and noon (a full twelve hours), you are doing less harm to the environment than if you were to run even some of those electronics between 2pm and 7pm.
It’s surprising isn’t it? Our electrical system is designed to accommodate everyone who wants to turn on a switch exactly when they want to turn on that light on. Think of our electrical grid as being run by invisible house elves from the Harry Potter world. In the same way that the students at Hogwarts don’t think about the work that goes into the food that magically shows up on their dinner table, we don’t think about how much work goes the utility company’s ability to anticipate when you want to plug in your iPhone, run your dishwasher or turn up your AC.
The challenge is that on the really hot days when everyone is turning on their AC, they tend do it at about the same time. People get home from work, finds out that their house is really hot and almost in unison everyone dials up their AC and the demand for electricity goes up.
You haven’t ever had to worry about this because electrical companies have gotten very good at anticipating your needs. What you might not know is that that having that much of a demand for electricity so quickly is a really big stress on the electrical system. It means that utilities turn to what are called peaker plants and spinning reserves.
And this is where we can see the environmental impact.
These plants only run during the hottest (and sometimes the coldest) days of the year. They are typically coal and gas-fired plants that have been built for the sole purpose of running during the times when there is a peak demand (or a lot of need) for electricity. Utilities can call on them at the last minute so that when you and your neighbors arrive home on that hot August evening and you all turn on the AC at exactly the same time, the system won’t overload.
These plants are the most expensive to run, they tend to be the least energy efficient and they often have the most environmental issues. It’s partially because they have to be “spinning” in the background, meaning that they’re producing electricity even if you don’t use it (waste much?). That makes the price of electricity they provide higher.
Which brings us back to my older nephew Micah gravely telling his younger brother on the hot August day that they need to save electricity. Where did he get that idea?
Micah and Ezra’s parents had signed the household up for a pilot Demand Response program through their utility. During up to 12 really hot days in the summer months, they agreed to reduce their usage during peak times – in this case between the hours of 2pm and 7pm. In return, they got a programmable thermostat and a better electricity rate during off peak times.
While these programs are still experimental, utilities have found that these programs called “Demand Response” are effective and efficient ways to reduce peak electrical need. Utilities can cut back on the expensive and environmentally damaging peak electricity and most consumers find that with a little bit of forethought and some thermostat programming it’s not that big of a deal even on the hottest days.
These programs are cost effective, beneficial for our environment and so simple that a five-year-old can understand it.