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Utility Adjustments

I hear that reducing individual energy consumption can make a difference in the country's carbon footprint. My question is, do the utility companies have software or systems in place to produce only what is needed, or when I reduce my usage, does the net extra energy just get wasted? If the coal plants and other generators are producing a predetermined amount of energy, conservation won't help much. Any insight into how the utilities manage the grid might go a long way toward helping consumers conserve energy.

Brian Jarvis • Brookline, Massachusetts

Utilities have several types of power plants. Some are designed to run at or near maximum capacity at all times because that is the way they run best, and they may be slow to react to adjusting their output. Some produce energy so cheaply (like large hydro-electric plants) that the utilities want to run them at capacity as much as they can. Others, such as natural gas turbines and reciprocating engines, are designed to come online or ramp up production very quickly when needed.

That aside, utilities have gotten pretty good at predicting what the system-wide demand will be for any given time, based on years of history and what recent demand has been. Usually, only minor adjustments need to be made. But when there are big, sudden drops in demand, utilities take immediate steps to shut down some of their power plants' generation.

All utilities are connected together in a grid so that local changes in demand are absorbed fairly well. Also, reduction in household consumption typically happens slowly, over time.

Finally, even though many of us are finding ways to reduce consumption, the overall trend system-wide (in nearly all markets) is still an increase in demand, as population increases and business needs go up in our electronic world.

Michael Welch • Home Power

I was in a utility control room once when a 400-megawatt plant tripped and went off-line. The lights hardly flickered, as grid operators immediately dispatched their "spinning reserve," the backup power stations that are kept ready for just this purpose.

The electric grid is one of the nation's most marvelous machines. But it has one enormous downside—the production of electricity is responsible for nearly 40% of U.S. carbon emissions. Today, every 1,000 kilowatt-hours sold in this country comes "bundled" with 1,400 pounds of carbon dioxide, some of which will still be in the atmosphere 500 years from now.

Electric utilities are in the bull's-eye of climate policy, and many are beginning to examine how they can reduce emissions. On the menu: improving the efficiency of existing power plants; retiring older fossil-fueled plants; adding new, efficient natural-gas plants; purchasing carbon-free renewable energy; building new nuclear plants; and changing the order in which power plants are operated or "dispatched."

Some utilities are shrinking their carbon footprints. For example, in Colorado, Xcel Energy has lowered its carbon emissions per megawatt-hour by nearly 20%, and has set ambitious targets for further reductions in the years ahead.

There are two caveats, and they are big ones. First, reductions in emissions intensity are not sufficient to stop global warming; we need real reductions and large ones at that. Due to increased population and economic growth, it will be difficult for Xcel (and many other utilities) to reduce their total emissions. Second, since coal provides more than half of U.S. electricity and accounts for 80% of the sector's emissions, if we don't quickly develop and deploy much cleaner coal stations, or replace them with renewables, climate change is likely to accelerate.

Five to eight percent of all electricity is lost in the transmission system on its way to your home, so there's a new focus on reducing line losses in the distribution system. Improved transformers are available now, and superconductivity holds promise for the future.

At the personal level, a typical family produces enough greenhouse gases each year to fill two blimps. Half of this comes from burning gasoline, but most of the rest is due to electricity consumption. Cutting your personal electricity use through conservation and efficiency, and by using renewables, can save you money and lead to large decreases in your carbon footprint. For example, a solar efficiency retrofit of my home will keep 300,000 pounds of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere over the next 20 years.

Randy Udall • Independent Energy Analyst

"Every 1,000 kilowatt-hours sold in this country comes 'bundled' with 1,400 pounds of carbon dioxide "

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