Columnist Darcy DuMont: A call for residents to ‘shave the peak’

  • Green Energy Consumers Alliance

  • Green Energy Consumers Alliance

Thursday, July 11, 2019

Have you ever felt powerless in the face of climate change? Like any individual action you might take will be a drop in the bucket and not meaningful?

Well, thankfully, you’re wrong about that. Individual actions — limiting consumption, switching from gas to electric-powered vehicles and heating systems, adding solar panels, making energy efficiency retrofits — are all actions that are making a big difference.

Another impactful action is joining in the effort to “shave the peak” on peak electricity days. Doing so will not only dramatically reduce our emissions, but will reduce the cost of our electricity. So what does it mean to “shave the peak?”

In the summer, we have high electricity demand. Between 5 and 8 p.m. on the days of highest demand, ISO New England, our electric grid operator, is forced to turn on our dirtiest, most expensive power plants that are otherwise unused. You can help prevent using that dirty energy by reducing your electricity use during peak hours through signing up to get Shave the Peak Alerts at greenenergyconsumers.org/shavethepeak.

That way you will know when to turn off the air conditioner, lights and appliances, and when to charge your electric car if you have one! Shave the peak electricity days are also good times to join in community with others to go for a swim, go to a movie or otherwise get out of your home while you are saving energy. In other words, shave the peak days present a very good excuse to have a party.

And since about half of our Amherst residents are renters, it’s important to note that you don’t have to be a homeowner to shave the peak. Anyone can do it. This is how it works.

In New England, we have one electrical grid that serves the businesses, homes and other buildings in the region. ISO New England tracks electricity throughout the region to make sure there’s always enough power being produced to supply the demand.

On a normal day in the fall and spring, electricity demand is extremely low at night, when everyone’s asleep and industry has shut down. Demand rises rapidly from 6 to 9 a.m. as lights are switched on and businesses open their doors.

Solar energy, which is producing power to run homes and businesses between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m., reduces fossil-fueled electricity demand in the middle of the day, but demand spikes between 6 and 9 p.m., when solar energy winds down and people make dinner or watch TV at home. Demand falls again at night, and the cycle starts over.

Summer heat throws a big wrench in this pattern.

On the hottest days of summer, people turn up their air conditioning and fans. Demand peaks in the early evening, putting a huge strain on the grid. Electricity demand on a peak day can be twice that of demand on a spring day.

To meet the high electricity demand, the electrical grid operator signals old, expensive power plants to start supplying energy to the grid. These power plants, including coal and oil plants, sit unused for most of the year, but they’re kept around just for these peak days.

That’s why electricity during the 10 percent of hours that have the highest demand lead to 40 percent of electrical grid costs. It’s also why electricity is dirtiest during peak hours.

This is when we get to help shave the peak. The Shave the Peak program of the Green Energy Consumers Alliance closely follows demand predictions from ISO New England. When it looks like the next day will be one of the four to eight dirtiest, most expensive electricity days in the year, the Shave the Peak program sends text and email alerts to program subscribers reminding them to reduce their electricity usage where they can.

In 2018, the second year of the Shave the Peak program, subscribers increased by a factor of 10. Let’s do that again this summer! The more people across New England we have shaving the peak, the bigger difference we can make. So sign up on the Shave the Peak website and tell your friends and family to do the same.

Not only does collective action lead to collective impact, it gives us all the chance to really think about our daily impact on the grid.

Darcy DuMont is an Amherst Town Councilor representing District 5 and the lead sponsor of the legislation to establish an Amherst Energy and Climate Action Committee. (Councilor Evan Ross co-authored the legislation.) Views expressed are hers and not those of the Town Council. Kai Salem of the Green Energy Consumers Alliance is a contributor to this month’s column.