Energy 103: Demand Response and Solar Flares

The grid is an edgy basket to put all your eggs into, though we do, thanks to our ever burgeoning, bigger-is-better attitude and economy. We, Americans, need our power when we want it. Not only is that expensive, but it’s risky because the grid isn’t as elastic as it needs to be, given its uneconomic, inefficient infrastructure. (See ENERGY 102: Energy in the U.S. of A..) It’s wobbly, too.

One rule of thumb that is important to know: electricity supply and demand have to remain in balance or disruptions happen. In the U.S. of A., things usually chug along. The utility companies work to supply us with power, thereby responding to our demands. To keep those demands in check, the utility companies charge us more during peak times. Even so, on really hot days, or cold, demand surges and the utility companies have to juggle where to get enough power, at full throttle. This is like asking one’s great-grandfather to jump up from his leisurely breakfast table and run a marathon. The Grid is old and creaky. Power surges are a challenge. The recent deep freeze in the midwest being an excellent example. Utility companies had to plead with customers to turn down their thermostats. The Grid was having trouble meeting the demand. There was a very real possibility that the demand would outpace the response and the whole system would collapse. Especially after a fire broke out at a natural gas compressor station. Which it did do.

People turned down their thermostats. Still, some people lost power. Brr.

Far preferable a circumstance is a planned reaction. Just as we are learning about energy in order to choose how we will go forward, so the U.S. government developed a “National Action Plan on Demand Response”.⁠1 Demand response reduces or shifts energy demands at all levels of the grid, from electric system planners and operators to customers, so utilities can better juggle supply with demand, and lower the necessity of building more and expensive power generators. (Think coal plants and nuclear reactors.) Demand response programs offer customers the opportunity to lower the cost of their electricity by not using as much during peak times. The utilities send prompts to customers, or the equipment at the customers’ location, and they, in response, turn off their air conditioners and water heaters, and unplug their electric vehicles. The customer pays less. The utilities are better able to cover the electric demand without stressing the grid. The grid doesn’t collapse. Everyone is happy.

Grid collapse is an ugly scenario. The U.S. military considers it a national security issue, right up there with solar flares.

Solar flares, if you don’t know, are sudden eruptions of energy on the sun. Intense yellow, orange and red explosions of magnetic energy that, at times, break off and rocket into space. Sometimes those bounding balls of energy head toward earth. It takes eight minutes for them to reach us. And when they get here? They cause geomagnetic storms in the stratosphere above us. 

Solar flares won’t hurt us. Not directly. They do, however, have the potential to wreck havoc on the grid. The U.S. military is more worried about solar flares’ effects on the grid than a terrorist attack on the grid because there’s a 12 1/2 % chance that one will hit us and take out the entire grid for an extended period of time. And we won’t be able to fix the grid because all the fix-the-grid tools depend on the grid, and the communication system it runs, to work. Within two weeks of the grid going down, 1.3 million people could die due to hospitals being crippled without electricity, lack of clean water and food, withdrawal from cell phone access to Instagram, Twitter and your bank account. It would take out our economy. 

Energy is a national security issue. Think demand response. Think solar flares. Thus, it is important to understand how it all works: so we can know our options . . . and there are options.

Did you call your national representatives? Now try calling your state reps with the same message: You care about things climate, and that we need to start now to create a resilient infrastructure. Why wouldn’t we? Of which more in next week’s Friday post: The Politics of Energy.

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1 https://www.energy.gov/sites/prod/files/oeprod/DocumentsandMedia/FERC_NAPDR_-_final.pdf