Flattening peaks

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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.

Organizations: Ontario Hydro, CBC, Hydro-Québec NB Power

Geographic location: P.E.I., Manitoba, Alberta

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Recent comments

  • Winston Adams
    January 08, 2014 - 09:08

    Russell, the online indicator gives your article a 5 star rating. I would give it a 3. Certainly flattening peaks is a wise thing to do, but your article dwells mostly on better ways to shift the loads to different times. This is a minor advantage. Over 60 percent of our winter time energy use is for heating. While it is little inconvenience to delay the dishwasher or clothes dryer , or even the bath, losing the heat for even a few hours is a big problem in cold weather with high winds. For most houses, expect the indoor temperature to drop 5 degree F or more each hour. Before the power loss, if a house is using 5kw for heat, after an hour or more it will need 10 kw or more to try and make up for the heat loss...... hence the blowing of transformer fuses and the loss of some transformers, and other components from overloading. The primary effective way to flatten the peak load is to use efficient heating systems that use half or less the electricity to give the same heat. This is the most effective way to avoid the blackouts, and loss of some generating supply assets is then not critical. I believe you are aware of this approach, yet you chose, or overlooked to state this.

  • NerillDP
    January 05, 2014 - 08:06

    Yes, there's the answer, give financial incentive. Or, as I like to call it, forcing the "have-nots" do the work to keep the grid up so the "haves" (with more money than they need) can enjoy as much power as they want whenever they want.

  • Mr. Global Speaker
    January 05, 2014 - 06:19

    It is a shame to be alive, indeed, we need morality odometers, taxpayer funded, to police our hygiene to the off peak, all alt energy is derided as not reliable, not consistent, well hydro is same, just preached to death as the solution to everything. Yes, a final solution, finally get smart meters and prove that we have a control freak government intent on using a two tier power system to resettle rural idiots who can't wrap their welfare-addled minds around the concept of electrical dole - yet. When does the buck stop with the stupid spending to save future dream dollars in a projected fantasy of a Buck Rogers control system layered over a Fred Flintstone grid. Go get your off peak shower now, save yourself the dignity of washing when you like. Feel the joy of having your domestic existence dominated by media spun, utility manufactured emergencies. Asking people politely, in a muted whisper, once, to conserve power, then use the excuse of non-compliance to justify a worst money waste than the smartmoosedectors on the highway. If the government and Nalcor tooted the horn AND walked the walk of conservation, instead of just tooting their own horn, and confusing people, and reporters, until its time to use scare tactics to bring in smart meters.

    • Miss Management
      January 05, 2014 - 16:24

      Dont knock the technology. The neglected stuff hydro got in Holyrood is in bad need of technology. Problem was, all the bogie boo about pollution made it politically unsavory to spend money on Holyrood. Run it in to the ground came back to haunt Hydro/Nalcor, or did it? No. But the staffing levels, management, stupidity seems to mimic Canada post; a culture of neglect, no xmas prep, to please federal pathos toward corporate privatization. Don't panic, just educate yourself against the scourge of being led by the nose to hate your neighbor for his Xmas lights and home delivery. This is small potatoes for tight communities. Consider this a drill for a post conservative future of liberal managed fallout. Pope Ed Martin and Swami Deepak Chopra are not poor leaders. They are infallibly handcuffed to a federal carbon credit bullshit scam worst than the senate, or rob ford, no choice, whipped dogs.

  • Maurice E. Adams
    January 04, 2014 - 07:24

    All good stuff. But it is not the blackout that is making the choice --- government and Nalcor made the decision to push through Muskrat Falls while avoiding the implementation of systems, technologies, pricing mechanisms and other options proven (long ago) effective in other jurisdictions. But then why would Nalcor really try to reudce demand? Nalcor needs high demand and/or high rates to pay for its $10 billion folly. Even still, we had significantly higher demand in 2002, 03, 04 05 and 2009 (about 100 MW higher than yesterday's peak island demand) --- and the island's EXISTING "NET" capacity is 1,958 MW (500 MW more than yesterday's peak island demand)...... still 400 MW more, even with the loss of 100 MW from a partial failure of 1 unit at Holyrood)........... Which politician will have the best interest of the people in mind and call for a public inquiry?

  • Corporate Psycho
    January 04, 2014 - 05:44

    What a debacle this has turned out to be for Nalcor. These people are running the MF project yet they can't manage what they have now. All of Danny's patronage appointments are coming back to haunt us.