Can a text message help cool energy use on hot days?
With much of Massachusetts wilting under heat-wave conditions this week, a new initiative is aimed at getting people to reduce pollution and energy costs by paying attention to when they use electricity, not just how much they consume.
The Shave the Peak program was launched last week by Mass Energy Consumers Alliance and its Rhode Island-based partner organization, People’s Power and Light. Consumers who sign up for the free program receive text alerts when a particularly hot day is expected to send people running for their air conditioners, putting pressure on the electric grid. The text messages encourage consumers to scale back their own power usage during these predicted hours of high demand, and it offers tips on how to do that.
“It’s not just about lowering energy consumption in a day — it’s paying attention to when you use energy,” said Larry Chretien, executive director of Mass Energy Consumers Alliance and People’s Power and Light.
During hot weather, consumers are advised to trim power usage between 3 p.m. and 8 p.m. Set the temperature on your air conditioner to 72, Chretien suggested, and hold off on doing laundry or running the dishwasher until the next morning. Turn off unneeded lights and avoid charging computers or electric vehicles during the five-hour peak window.
“We’re not trying to deprive people,” Chretien said. “We’re just trying to make people more cognizant.”
Why do peak demand hours matter more than other hours? It has to do with the way the power supply is managed. An organization called ISO New England administers the region’s electricity market, making sure the supply at any given moment matches up to demand.
To keep costs down, ISO New England first deploys the power available at the lowest cost, generally from renewable sources and then from nuclear plants. Natural gas plants come next, then coal and oil, which are the most expensive and the dirtiest.
When more expensive sources come online, all of the power supply sources reap the same, higher price.
For example, a wind farm may initially charge nothing for the power it supplies — because it has no fuel costs and other ways of making money — but when a natural gas plant charging $20 per megawatt hour comes online at the same time because of increased demand, the wind farm will also receive that price.
So when demand spikes, so do costs and pollution.
From 2013 to 2015 in Massachusetts, the most expensive 10 percent of energy hours accounted for 40 percent of the cost to ratepayers — some $3 billion — according to a report released by the Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources.
“That’s a reasonable amount of hours that we can do something about,” Chretien said.
The Shave the Peak initiative was born last year at Brown University, when three friends interested in energy policy started looking into the effects of peak demand hours. They decided to create a program that would allow consumers to make a difference, rather than waiting for action from regulators or utilities.
“You don’t need the policymakers or the regulators,” said Kai Salem, one of the program’s creators. “You can do something now.”
Salem worked last summer as an intern at People’s Power and Light, and introduced the project to Chretien. He embraced the idea.
So far, only 400 subscribers are receiving the alerts. But with the reach of Mass Energy Consumers Alliance and People’s Power and Light now behind the initiative, Chretien and Salem hope to grow that number substantially. (You can sign up for alerts at massenergy.org/shavethepeak.)
“The economic and environmental benefits of shaving the peak are just enormous,” Chretien said. “We can make a collective impact.”