Juice: You Do Need a Weatherman

By Published On: February 15, 2013

As California attempts to assimilate a third of its electricity from renewable resources, here’s a multiple choice quiz. Consumers shouldn’t use electricity: 1. When it’s expensive-- as your “smart” meter would say; 2. At times of high use; 3. When the sun is down, wind is nigh, and baseload power is plentiful; or 4. Unless it’s absolutely necessary. This virtual professor of electricity will give you a hint: it’s a trick question. It’s no longer when electricity shouldn’t be used. The right question is: When should you consume energy? Electricity should be used when renewables are at their peak. That way, the state grid operator partially avoids the storage problem. While the renewables technology has advanced to relatively cheap and plentiful, storage is still in the, ahem, dark ages. Storage facilities from new pumped hydro, to train-like gravity feeds could be built to save that kinetic wind power during the night for first-thing-in-the-morning lights, dishwasher, and surround sound. But, it hasn’t got that far. When it does, it will be expensive. A far cheaper, more elegant, approach is to change human behavior. For instance, in Alameda County on Jan. 1, stores began charging 10 cents for a grocery bag. Much grumbling, hysterics, and cashier stress ensued. That lasted about a week. In February, a tote bag became as much a fashion accessory to brag about. Electricity consumers don’t even need that 10 cent “stick” approach. Human behavior can adapt to the, as I call it, “Prius” model. A Prius is the mensch of the automobile world. Reliable. Gray. Conservative. Yet, they became ubiquitous when lowering carbon footprints became more fashionable than canvas shopping bags. All California policymakers have to do is make it a fashion statement--at the same time providing the information on which to act to smooth renewables’ transition into the grid when they’re available. It’s a simple add-on to a daily weather report. Renewables feed into the grid differently every day in different regions. That’s simply something new for consumer’s to get used to like shopping bags and quiet autos. It’s a new paradigm. If policy makers catch on and distribute information to consumers soon enough, the public will be ready to shape their consumption to align better in 2015 when a flood of renewables is expected to hit the grid. In two years, a flock of big solar projects in the pipeline are expected to go online. That means that there will be a surfeit of electricity during sunny hours, and more on blustery days. That power won’t be stored, for the most part. Instead, to make use of it, consumers should start planning electricity use to take advantage of new renewables. To help consumers, California needs to “alert” them when they should use electricity Recall that during the 2000-01 energy crisis, a nascent “Flex Alert” organization that works with the California Independent System Operator (and peer pressure) did a fair job of steering consumers away from using electricity in the middle of the day. That shifted use away from times of peak air conditioning to carry out non time-sensitive tasks, like laundry, to times when there was plentiful power produced mostly by baseload units. A decade later, policymakers have to realize it’s a whole new energy consumer portrait. For instance, the concept change should be away from baseload power--from generators that cannot be ramped up or down and simply have to stay with their inertia. A couple years ago there was 4,300 MW of nuclear baseload power. There were scads of old-fashioned gas-fired (and even some coal) plants that had to run flat out all the time. Big hydro was, and is, also a source that has trouble adjusting its output up and down to match load. Geothermal, ditto. Consumers were urged to use electricity during the times that those older generators absolutely had to run. That barely applies anymore. This month, the grid is relying on 1,100 MW of nuclear power for baseload and 900 MW of geothermal. Other, power from old fossil plants applies to the non-ramping problem, but it’s being phased out as more renewables are phased in. That changes the temporal shape of when consumers should feel better about using electricity. (Note: my focus is not on when they shouldn’t, but when they should use electricity. We should encourage, rather than discourage consumer behavior.) During what are considered mid-day peak hours, on a small-wind, sunshiny winter day this week, over 3,000 MW was fed into the grid from renewables. That is one-tenth of daily peak demand. Because of that, consumers might feel good using the mid-day solar influx. Without the information available to shape consumer energy use to that mid-day input, use peaks at 8 p.m. requiring more fossil-fueled and imported resources. Adapting consumer behavior will optimize the match between demand and production, requiring less expensive and polluting resources to bulk up the grid. Policymakers can use 2013 technology to shape behavior for the 2015 influx of renewables. It should become like checking weather or traffic before going out. A renewables advisory could even be attached to those outgoing weather/traffic messages in multimedia. At first, consumer advice could be state-wide, as the grid operator can send electrons around the state. But it could easily and quickly be refined to make grid management more effective. As wind and solar behave differently in each region, the renewables landscape, in the big picture for an awfully big and bioregionally varied state, could start with seven zones: Central Valley, Northwest, Sierra, Southern Desert, North to Central Coast, Southern California, and the San Diego area. Consumers sign up to have messages about the day’s renewables forecast in their region sent to phones or email. Google will develop an app in a minute for that. Consumer response would be: “Wind tonight? I’ll turn on the dishwasher just before bed.” Or, “A clear day, I’ll do loads of laundry after 9 a.m.” Consumers wouldn’t even need to be an Android jockey or have a wifi connection. The old fashioned ones could get the same information on television news, or even in an anachronistic morning newspaper. A renewables forecast would be cheap and easy to implement. The main cost would be in outreach to let consumers know it’s there, and how useful it is. Don’t just assume people are selfish and use electricity at whim--yet, if they don’t know otherwise, they will. Get ahead of the 2015 renewables flood. Use media to entice behavior that adapts to intermittent renewables. You do need a weatherman in the mid-2010s to tell which way the wind blows.

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