Officially summer is still going, but many of us can agree that it feels long gone. In some parts of the U.S., cooler air is pushing south and east this weekend, and the beginning of the school year certainly makes sweltering summer days seem like a lifetime ago.
There were plenty of hot days this summer, however, and Opower has posted some interesting data on its blog about how the hottest days drive even higher peak energy use.
July 2012 was the hottest month ever recorded in the U.S. There were more than 27,000 daily high-temp records broken or tied this year.
Despite a lot of bickering, many of us pass our days quite comfortably in air-conditioned (often over-air-conditioned) environments. During the hottest days of summer where the mercury plows into triple digits, an average home’s energy use is 40 percent higher than a typical summer day, according to Opower.
On a day where the thermometer hits 103 degrees Fahrenheit, electricity use in the late afternoon is 40 percent higher than when it’s 83 degrees, and wholesale electricity prices are 100 percent higher, Opower reported on its blog. As it gets hotter, everyone cranks the AC.
Of course, that increased electricity use mostly comes from peaker plants, which cost a whole lot more and are often not as efficient compared to standard plants. With companies like Opower pushing data and behavioral analytics, and literally hundreds of energy management services now on offer, we wondered earlier this year whether 2012 would be the summer where smart grid would come to the rescue during the most sweltering of days.
The answer, for the most part, is not really. Sure, there is Oklahoma Gas & Electric’s residential demand response program, which is helping to offset new generation until after 2020. EPB Chattanooga used its smart grid to cut outages in half after a summer storm.
But there’s still a long way to go. A report put out last month by the World Energy Council, IBM and others found that smarter grids could shave up to 20 percent off of a utility’s peak power demands. We’re still waiting for that real-world example.
In many regions, peak load shaving is still pretty old-fashioned, even with increasing demand response. Big factories and companies turn stuff down for a few hours. On the residential side, the technology used to cut power during peak afternoons can be phone messages, as with Consolidated Edison’s territory in New York City, for example -- even though you’re probably already at work by the time the call arrives. (In fairness, Con Ed is also piloting a connected window AC demand response program.)
Although companies like Opower and EnergyHub continued to see substantial growth in their businesses through the summer of 2012, and companies on the commercial and industrial (C&I) side racked up hundreds of millions of square feet of space being monitored for energy use, there are few tangible results of lowering of peak demand.
A large part of the problem is a lack of penetration. On the residential side, Comcast, WeatherBug, Alarm.com, Lowe’s, Best Buy, Verizon and almost any other company you can think of is making an energy play. But it’s still early days. Ditto on the commercial side, where small and medium commercial remains largely untouched and even the largest commercial customers are in the process of just eliminating energy use excess rather than shifting peak use every time the mercury rises. Utilities have not quite worked out a way to leverage the action in the consumer space into real kilowatt reductions when it's needed most.
Not all of the peak problems need to be solved by slashing demand. Utilities, like Dominion Virginia Power, are also looking at investing in increasingly sophisticated conservation voltage reduction to drop load when needed.
For all of the cutting-edge technology and analytics, the smart meter penetration and the forward-looking utilities, the summer of 2012 was simply not where we saw multiple examples of smarter grids -- with dynamic distribution automation and novel demand-side application -- come to the rescue. Even 2013 could be far too soon.
And in case peak summer demand for electricity wasn’t a big enough problem in the U.S. (the U.S. is certainly not alone, as India demonstrated last month), Opower also shared a fun fact from the U.S. Energy Information Administration on its blog recently. Electricity is now the heating fuel of choice for 44 percent of new homes, the highest it’s ever been, mostly driven by housing booms in the South and West. So while utilities are trying to solve summer peaks, there could also be another problem down the road with increasing winter heating peaks.