Avoiding brownout: Utility companies share ideas for conserving power, avoiding outages

PEC members were last affected by rotating outages in February 2011. The utility provider is hoping to avoid outages this summer. (Photo by Veronica Gordon)

by JORDAN GASS-POORÉ
Special to the Hays Free Press

As temperatures rise this summer, state utility companies are utilizing technology and social media to urge customers to conserve energy in the hopes of avoiding rotating outages.

Kay Jarvis, Pedernales Electric Cooperative communications supervisor, said that PEC members were last affected by rotating outages in February 2011, when a number of power plants in the state malfunctioned as a result of extreme cold weather.

When rotating outages occur PEC provides as much information as possible to its members and local media through press releases, web updates and social media, Jarvis said.

The Electric Reliability Council of Texas released a free smartphone application last month to provide customers with real-time updates on the company’s grid system and tips on how to effectively conserve electricity during peak times.

Robbie Searcy, ERCOT media communications specialist, said more than 8,000 people have downloaded the mobile application since its release.

The ERCOT Energy Saver mobile application was released just weeks before the company broke the peak demand record it set last month, as well as the standing record for this month.

Future resource adequacy continues to be a concern for ERCOT, the grid operator for most of the state.

The ERCOT board of directors recently met to discuss other ways to reach the public about energy conservation. Beginning next month, ERCOT is scheduled to release a series of public service announcements.

The Public Utility Commission’s “Power to Save” campaign will focus on educating the public about reducing energy during peak demand hours and ways to help people save money on their electric bills.

Local utility provider PEC has established its own campaign to educate the public about energy conservation.

PEC, which has more than 236,000 active accounts throughout the Texas Hill Country, including Hays County, has established the “Beat the Peak” program to help lower power supply costs.

Jarvis said the company complies with standards set forth by ERCOT in regard to rotating outages.

If ERCOT determines that energy demand is still high enough to threaten the electric distribution grid, a directive to shed the firm electrical load is issued, Jarvis said. The firm electrical load must be shed to prevent rotating outages. This occurs when the company receives more demand for electrical power than it is generating and is forced to ration available electricity to customers.

The Lower Colorado River Authority, PEC’s primary wholesale electricity provider, had a total transmission operator load of 5.41 megawatts in 2011.

Once ERCOT determines if energy demand is still high enough to threaten the grid, PEC and other state utility companies are then required to comply immediately by participating in rotating outages, or rolling blackouts, Jarvis said.

Rotating outages prevent the generator from overloading and automatically shut down the entire power station.

Rotating outages are not the only energy concern people in Hays County and throughout the state have to face this summer.

During the peak energy supply hours of 2 to 6 p.m. from June through September, PEC’s electricity costs rise exponentially.

PEC reported that last summer the cost of power accounted for more than 65 percent of total operating expenses.

Members are urged to “Beat the Peak” by raising their thermostat by three degrees and shifting hot water usage away from, and avoiding the use of, major appliances during peak demand hours.

PEC estimates a savings of more than $2 million between June and September if every member shifts two kilowatt hours of electric use to an off-peak time every day.

Searcy said a megawatt is enough power to serve about 200 Texas homes during peak demand hours.

Electric use in the state reached 66,683 megawatts last month, not surpassing ERCOT’s all-time peak demand record set at 68,379 megawatts last August.

Searcy said ERCOT has anticipated this summer’s energy peak to be 67,492 megawatts.

“Forecasts seem to be holding true this summer,” Searcy said.

To reduce demand on the grid system during peak demand hours, ERCOT advises customers to turn their thermostat up two or three degrees before leaving home in the morning and in the late afternoon; set pool pumps to run early in the morning or late at night; and avoid using large appliances, such as hot stoves and clothes dryers.

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