SUMMER IS THE SEASON of higher temperatures and rising electrical demands. It is also a time when the nation’s electrical grid experiences its heaviest burden, increasing the likelihood of power outages.
The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) projects electricity consumption will increase 2.2 percent annually in the commercial sector through 2025. This growth could narrow the margin between electrical supply and demand, increasing the risk of future blackouts.
Power users unaware that the grid is approaching overload or that wholesale electricity prices are rising have no motivation or incentive to reduce demand during these times.
Demand-response technologies are emerging on the West Coast that inform power users of higher prices and emergency-curtailment requests, as well as help them shed non-critical electricity loads during these periods.
The California Energy Commission’s Public Interest Energy Research program has launched a new Demand Response Research Center (DRRC). The DOE’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL) manages the center, which is looking at two kinds of demand responses — emergency and price-based.
In emergency response, also known as reliability programs, the grid is so full that utility companies ask users to shed loads. Price-based response involves dynamic pricing, which is not widely used today but someday might be. Customers on dynamic pricing tariffs may receive rate discounts when system conditions are normal and pay at higher rates when electricity demand is unusually high or when supply is low.
“People are more willing to reduce loads in emergency situations than in price-based situations,” says Mary Ann Piette, DRRC’s director. When the grid is full, users will reduce their energy requirements because it will help other users. Because energy prices usually are a small part of a company’s operating budget, some managers won’t sacrifice energy in a price-based situation, she says.
“But in the future, when we have dynamic prices and energy costs more on hot summer days, more people might want demand-response techniques in their buildings to reduce their costs,” Piette says.
When electricity prices rise, commercial users can implement a preplanned program that reduces certain electrical loads of their choice. For example, they can decide in advance to dim lights or turn them off in unused areas of buildings, lower hot-water temperatures, reduce air conditioner use, or shut down certain assembly lines or tools in response to an automatic signal of power price increase or a grid emergency.
Earlier this year, LBNL successfully tested the first automatic, multi-building, demand-response technology using the Internet. The test was conducted in five buildings and used server technology to manage the broadcast signal and acknowledge responses.
Being able to respond to electricity price signals in real time can help save money for power users, reduce energy consumption, and lower energy prices by making the power market more responsive to consumer needs. The technology to participate in demand-response programs in California and the rest of the United States is only beginning to emerge, and much remains to be learned about the program’s cost effectiveness. Improved building commissioning, proper use of controls, and whole-building electric load shape analysis tools can be used to support energy efficiency and demand response.
Eventually, the majority of commercial buildings could be managed using these systems, improving energy efficiency, lowering peak demands nationwide, and making blackouts a dark part of the past.