When they say they want to turn your power off, believe them
In 2019, then-President Donald Trump mocked the idea of powering our society on unreliable wind and solar power by joking, “Darling? Darling? Is the wind blowing today? I’d like to watch television.”
Now, wind and solar advocacy groups are advocating for this exact policy, but instead of being honest with the public about their desire to curb your electricity use when the wind isn’t blowing or the sun isn’t shining, they use innocuous-sounding words like “demand response” and “load flexibility” to hide their true intentions from ordinary people.
For example, Fresh Energy, a wind and solar special interest group located in Minnesota, says the grid of the future will need to be balanced not by building enough reliable peaking power plants to make sure the lights stay on but by charging people more to disincentivize them from using power during times of peak demand and otherwise controlling or rationing power to keep widescale blackouts from occurring.
From Fresh Energy’s website:
The critical role that rate design plays in decarbonization can be summed up as load flexibility. As we shift to getting more of our power from wind and solar, there are more times throughout the day (as well as times of year) when electricity supply does not match electricity demand. Today when this occurs, power plants ramp up or down to match demand. Wind and solar are less able to ramp up or down than traditional fossil power plants. This is why batteries are so important—they are able to store electricity for later use. But, we probably can’t and shouldn’t rely entirely on batteries to solve this—there are other solutions that can be more effective and efficient. Enter, load flexibility!
The basic idea is to encourage electricity usage patterns (“load”) to correspond to periods of wind and solar production, periods of lower-cost electricity, and to become more responsive to grid conditions. The primary tools we use for this are “time-of-use” (TOU) or “time-of-day” (TOD) rates, and demand response programs. TOU and TOD rates have been around for a long time for commercial and industrial customers but are becoming more common for residents as well, and are becoming more precise overall.
How do they work? TOU or TOD rates encourage customers to use less electricity during the peak times of the day and/or peak seasons—when energy use is highest across a utility’s territory and drives the highest grid costs. Peaks are when we need the most electricity generation, transmission, and distribution—so if peak demand increases, the utility needs more power generation and needs to build more grid infrastructure.
It’s quite common for utilities to build and operate “peaking” or “peaker” fossil gas power plants to supply power to meet peak demand just a few times per year. These fossil gas peaking plants are frequently some of the least efficient and dirtiest power plants in the grid, often running less than 10 percent of the year but having outsized environmental impacts on nearby communities. For now, we do need some peaking power plants to be available until we can replace them with zero-carbon alternatives. But the goal is that with load flexibility and other tools, we can use peakers as little as possible.
Typically, peak energy use occurs during the afternoon or early evenings in the summertime—such as around dinner time each night when many families are turning on lights, making dinner, or catching up on laundry. Through TOU rates, customers who reduce usage during peak times pay less. Customers can do this by, for example, plugging in their electric vehicle for charging overnight versus immediately after arriving home from work, or by using a “delay start” function on the clothes and dishwasher.
Demand response programs perform a similar but distinct function—the utility pays customers to commit to temporarily reducing electricity usage if a need arises, such as unusually high peak demand or a grid emergency. Demand response programs target less-frequent peaks and require only temporary reductions, while TOU rates encourage more consistent behavior changes. Overall, TOU rates and demand response programs have several benefits. They help customers use cleaner, less expensive power, which reduces their bills. And in the longer-term, they reduce the need for peaking power plants and ensure we use grid infrastructure efficiently, which keeps future electricity costs – and emissions – lower. As the clean energy transition continues, we need to expand TOU rates, demand response, and other types of load flexibility, which work together to maximize renewable energy and ensure safe, reliable, affordable electricity service.
The bottom line is that decarbonization and energy equity goals must go hand-in-hand, and greater action must be taken to ensure that under-resourced customers and communities are not left behind when it comes to adopting clean energy technologies that will advance our collective transition to a clean energy economy.
Instead of rationing power and building our electricity system around the whims of the weather, we should be building power plants that work all hours of the day regardless of whether the wind is blowing or the sun is shining.
This should include a healthy balance of reliable power sources, such as keeping our existing coal and natural gas plants online and building new nuclear power plants for the future. It should not involve pleading with residents not to shut down their lives when the weather doesn’t cooperate.
No one should be surprised when we are subjected to the same calls for conservation as California and Texas. Fresh Energy has been telling us who they are for years, and we should believe them.