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Archived Story

Energy use heating up

Published 10:01pm Thursday, August 9, 2012

Editor’s note: This story originally appeared in the Aug. 5 print edition of the Herald. For the complete series, click here.

Austin Utilities has seen energy use rise lately, and its Energy Services Consultant Kelly Lady said the heat plays no small part.

To combat the strain of hot weather and reward consumers who are energy-conscious, AU offers the Conserve and Save electrical efficiency rebate. The program encourages the purchase of energy efficient appliances, so the city doesn’t put such a strain on the energy load.

“We are seeing a big increase in the number of customers that participate in our energy efficiency program,” she said.

Last year, more than 2,000 people applied for rebates on everything from clothes washers to lighting fixtures. The size of the rebates depended on the efficiency of the appliance, but a person purchasing a refrigerator could see $25 of the price return.

For those who get a rebate on their central air systems, Austin Utilities goes one step further. Installing load management devices, which are required for customers who would like to receive a rebate, on central cooling systems allows AU to remotely turn off the air conditioning in households for about 10 minutes every hour during peak energy hours. Peak hours run June through September, and last until 8 p.m. each day.

That adjustment allows AU to reduce its energy load by about 3 megawatts, or 3,000 kilowatts. To illustrate how much that is, picture 100 very bright light bulbs, each at 1,000 watts. If all of those were left on for 10 hours, they would use 1 megawatt of power, said Austin Utilities General Manager Mark Nibaur.

“We work really hard on those hot summer days to try to control loads,” Lady said. “You hope that the day you hit your peak, you’re using all the tools in your basket.”

In rural areas, people can help by running generators instead.

The peaks themselves have been shifting later in the day, Lady said, which is why AU endorses the slogan “it’s great after eight.”

“When people get home from work, they want to cook dinner, do laundry, run the dishwasher,” Lady said. Often, households will have two people earning full-time wages, she added, meaning a greater percentage of energy-users will arrive home and want to use electronics at the same time.

Energy use is also reaching new heights on a broader scale. The “West Control Area,” which includes power consumed by Interstate Power and Light Co. customers in Iowa and Minnesota, and Central Iowa Power Cooperative customers from all over Iowa, hit a record peak last month.

Around 5 p.m. on July 25, the area set a record at 3,724 megawatts, according to preliminary data. The previous record was set last year, when the system hit 3,699 megawatts on July 18. Before that, the most recent peak was back in 2003.

“A number of days with high energy usage this summer remind us that an ample supply of electric generation is critical for our customers today and in the future,” said Tom Aller, president of Interstate Power and Light Company, in a news release.

IPL made use of its load control options, which included both placing automatic limitations on in-home air conditioners and limiting or reducing power from participating industrial customers.

But controlling the energy demand isn’t just the responsibility of the utilities companies, Lady said. Any effort on consumers’ part to trim their energy use or delay it until later makes a difference. And it’s not just a matter of whether a person is willing to foot the bill for their own usage.

“It’s important for people to know that when they try to use less energy on really hot days … the whole community benefits,” Lady said.

Conservation converts to real savings. AU gets billed for the whole year based on the city’s peak usage. The municipality will pay less if the usage is lower, and that trickles down to customers in the form of lower energy bills.

While weather-related effects play a large role, Lady said, there’s also a growing strain on energy resources from “base usage”; that is, the normal, day-to-day energy load that people rack up from plugging in lights, devices and appliances has increased steadily over the last decade.

The reasons for that change, Lady said, are mostly the prevalence of new technology.

“Compared to 10 years ago, everybody’s got cell phone chargers, multiple televisions and gaming,” she said.


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