Records broken around the country last week included temperatures to 111 degrees. Yet there were no blackouts due to the grid load from increased demand for air conditioners, despite temperatures and heat indexes never before seen in some parts, (and that climate science has been long been warning us of). To a large extent, that is because the great economic-apocalypse has reduced the overall US demand on the grid, especially from businesses.
Commercial (26%) and industrial (36%) electricity users account for 62% of all the electricity on the grid, churning out the goods and services to supply a consumer society.
But there’s little demand from a population in greatly reduced circumstances due to unemployment, outsourcing, stolen pensions, soaring college costs, wage collapse and the end of borrowing ability against now worthless property assets.
As business has collapsed, many industries do not need the energy they once did, to manufacture or to sell us the products we once could buy, back when we all had jobs and money to buy things.
Now that commercial and industrial users like hotel chains and manufacturing plants simply do not need to produce or sell as much inventory to supply the sorry remnant of the American Dream, they can reduce their energy use and save money that would have gone to pay for energy as the production line falters and slows, using the idea of “nega-watts”.
A nega-watt is a megawatt of power reduction on request from their utility. In states that offer this demand-reponse program, utilities agree to buy back the energy not used.
If a business agrees, then when the grid is under heavy stress as peak air conditioning hours begin, their utility automatically throttles back their power using computer-controlled switches, married to the Internet, enabling the real-time reductions of electricity use in grocery stories, shopping malls, and manufacturing plants. These can be rotated, and imperceptible, like turning off refrigeration for as short as a minute or two.
“We have definitely seen an impact from increased energy efficiency and demand-response efforts,” Mark Lauby, VP of reliability assessment and performance analysis for NERC, (tasked with ensuring that the nation’s power grid keeps running) told The Christian Science Monitor. “It’s giving us more margin, more resources.”
Led by California and Vermont, longtime leaders in the field, who last year slashed energy use 10% with demand-response programs, now nine states offer demand-response programs. The energy savings are staggering: EnerNOC, which manufactures demand-response technology describes it as like having the single largest power plant in the world.
“We have 6,300 nega-watts we can pull off the grid – most of that in the US,” says Gregg Dixon, senior VP of marketing. “That’s equal to the amount of power used by 6 million homes – or if you think about it another way, it’s like having the single largest power plant in the world.”
While the idea of buying and selling negawatts of energy reduction was initially developed in a more rational age; to cut the use of fossil fuels – to reduce the cause of climate change, to prevent economic damage – but now that our climate is beginning to enter the years of chaos that lie ahead, it is the sorry state of our economy that is helping us cope with the effects of climate change as well.
It was the new poverty of America’s circumstances that kept the power on this last week. History is strange and unpredictable.