It hasn’t taken long for rotating power outages to get people talking: social media is lit up with discussion about the topic (at least, it is the moment people get their power back) and comments and letters to the editor are streaming in.
But it’s worth looking at some of the words that surround the need for the blackouts and asking if there might not be a better solution to the overall problem than simply forcing blocks of people to take a power time-out — because the rotating blackouts aren’t actually reducing the amount of power people are using, they’re merely moving it around. When the power comes back on, people play catch-up, warming their homes and running everything from dryers to dishwashers.
And there are better ways to move around demand.
Look at what both Nalcor and Newfoundland Light and Power are saying about the power shortages.
Here’s Dawn Dalley, with Nalcor, talking to the CBC: “We’re asking people when they get up, if they can just dial back on the electric heat, just a little bit — two or three degrees to allow us to get through peak between seven and 10 o’clock. That would be helpful.… As well, if they’re planning on doing laundry — I’m not sure if people do that first thing in the morning — but (avoid) anything with hot water.”
The magic words?
Peak periods. The early morning and the early evening are times when demand peaks, because that’s when customers want power, and they don’t benefit in any way from avoiding power use in those times.
That’s not the way all power utilities handle power sales.
Ontario Hydro, for example, offers dramatic savings to those who move heavy power use to off-peak periods: their current rates, from 8 p.m. to 7 a.m., offer customers power at 7.2 cents per kilowatt hour (kWh). Peak power — in the winter, between 7 a.m. and 10 a.m. and 6 p.m. and 7 p.m., costs 12.9 cents per kWh.
Ontario Hydro customers with smart meters can time their heavy power usage to take advantage of power that essentially costs 44 per cent less. And it works: right now, based on a sample of smart-metered homeowners, Ontario Hydro has found that those users have moved 63.4 per cent of their power use into off-peak hours.
Technologically, we may be behind the curve in this province in moving to smarter systems to monitor energy use and to shift people to different usage times. It’s not rocket science — plenty of utilities have moved in that direction, including Hydro-Québec, NB Power, SaskPower and BChydro. There are also pilot projects in Nova Scotia, P.E.I. and Manitoba. Alberta is examining a smartgrid system as well.
It’s clear from the blackouts that simply asking people to use less power during peak times doesn’t do the trick: Friday morning, as people struggled with power shutdowns around the province, it wasn’t hard to find areas with the power on where all lights, from Christmas lights to porch lights, were fully ablaze, even though it was daylight.
It’s a shame to suggest that self-interest rules the day and conserving power to help your neighbours just can’t get enough traction to help.
But financial incentives to spread the load actually work — and it would be much nicer to choose when to use power, saving money in the process, instead of having a blackout make that choice for you.