As a record-breaking heat wave pressures power grids throughout the southwest and central US regions, grid operators and utilities in places like Texas, where the temperature reached 108 degrees Fahrenheit in some parts of the state, are urging residents and businesses to cut back on electricity use. With temperatures climbing and demand for electricity growing to cool homes and businesses, no area is immune. Just today, we also received a notification from our office building in the District to do our part by closing blinds and turning off lights as the electrical grid across the Mid-Atlantic faces high demand. While we are likely not at risk for a blackout today, there are serious cost implications for peak demand days that can have significant impacts on residents’ and businesses’ electricity bills, even just from a few minutes of high electricity demand across the grid.
With extreme weather events becoming more common as a result of climate change, many may wonder not if, but when we may face the threat of blackouts. While the power grid in Texas is very different (their grid is a basically an island that can’t turn to other states/regional grids when they need to bring additional power on meet demand) than the electrical grid to which DC is interconnected, extreme heat and cold anywhere can push the limits of the available electric supply during so-called “peak demand” events. As an example, here in the District you’ll often see Pepco announcing “Peak Savings Days” during the hottest days and times in the summer, encouraging and incentivizing customers to reduce their energy consumption and cycling Energy Wise Rewards voluntary participants' air conditioner compressors off and on for short intervals (“load controls”) during the hours where electricity demand is highest. As the region grows so can the demand for energy, especially during peak events.
There are three basic ways to get ahead of or respond to peak demand events:
- Build more electricity generating capacity: Supplying electricity for an ever-increasing peak demand requires building more electricity infrastructure such as generators (could be a fossil fuel power plant, solar, wind, etc.) and higher capacity powerlines. Ultimately, customers pay to build this infrastructure through increases in the price of power, even though much of it may go unused for the remainder of the year when not at peak demand.
- Manage electric load: Preparing and responding to peak demand days by pre-cooling or pre-heating buildings, as well as using energy and thermal storage technologies shifts energy use away from times of peak electric demand. The “Energy Wise Rewards” program is a District-specific example of this approach.
- Reduce energy consumption: Maximizing efficiency in the built environment through efficient lighting, HVAC, building envelope/weatherization, behavioral changes, and other means reduces the overall demand for electricity, especially during the hottest and coldest days of the year.
Reducing energy consumption through energy efficiency is one of the simplest and most cost-effective ways to mitigate the impacts of extreme heat and cold, the subsequent strain on the grid, and monthly energy bills. Not only that, but in the event that the grid supply cannot meet demand (or when power lines go down during a storm) and blackouts do occur, efficient homes and businesses are more resilient.
Take for instance a home with a back-up power source, such as a generator or solar battery storage. Having a more efficient home can extend the number of hours that a back-up power source will last during an extreme weather event. And what about a building that has been weatherized with insulation and air sealing? Think of it like a chest freezer. When the power goes out and you don’t open the door to the freezer, your food can stay frozen for quite a while. It is the same with a building that’s well-insulated and air sealed, which prevents both heat gain during hot days and heat loss during cold days.
Looking at all the benefits it provides, especially during extreme weather events, efficiency just makes sense. It’s one of the most important tools in the toolbox for reducing overall demand and strain on the electrical grid, especially as we look to electrify buildings and transportation. Efficiency will remain just as important as the District moves toward electrification and decarbonization.