Blazing hot days in August, bone-chilling cold days in February — what do those weather extremes have to do with the cost of electricity? More than the bottom line on your electric bill.
Explaining the connection is a big part of the workday for Kara Snyder, marketing and key accounts manager at Butler Rural Electric Cooperative in Oxford, about 40 miles north of Cincinnati.
At the center of Snyder’s conversations are little boxes containing radio-controlled switches that can be installed on certain kinds of water heaters and many air-conditioning systems.
“We spend a lot of time letting our members know that they can help us control our energy costs, and ultimately their own energy costs, by participating in one or both of our load management programs,” Snyder says.
During weather extremes, power grid operators use the switches to temporarily turn off power for the water heater or air conditioner, then turn it back on a while later. These slight interruptions help keep costs low for the entire co-op system, in a process called load management.
“Our members have responded and had a big impact on the outcome, which really shows the benefits of the cooperative business model,” Snyder says.
The story behind the switches
The supply of electricity must always be an exact match for the demand, which is the amount of electricity being used by all consumers at any particular time. Generating and transmitting exactly the right amount of power is a complicated job during every season because the demand for electricity goes up and down throughout each day and night and in all seasons.
Power grid operators are constantly deciding which power plants to run and how much electricity to produce. Up and down, down and up — whatever the demand, that’s how much electricity must be available.
During weather extremes, the demand for electricity, often referred to as the load, reaches a peak. As the demand goes higher and higher, and the load peaks, the cost to generate and transmit more power also goes higher.
Finding ways to keep costs down is a high priority for all electric co-ops because they operate on a not-for-profit basis, and costs must be passed on to consumers.
Buckeye Power, Ohio’s generation and transmission cooperative that provides power to the 25 electric co-ops serving Ohio, was one of the first electric utilities to get involved with managing the system load to keep costs low during winter demand peaks.
In the early 1970s, Buckeye Power developed a program that’s still used today to put radio-controlled switches on electric water heaters so they could be turned off temporarily for a few hours in the early morning and evening, and then turned back on later. Hot water stored in the tank is still available for use until the switch turns the water heater back on.
As the use of air conditioners steadily increased, Buckeye Power saw demand peaks in the summer. In 2009, the load management program was expanded to include switches for air conditioners, promoted under the name Cool Returns. During the afternoon, power is interrupted to the air conditioners for only eight to 12 minutes at a time, so homes stay comfortable.
Big savings, big benefits
Today, electric co-ops serve about 400,000 homes, businesses, and farms in 77 of Ohio’s 88 counties. Load management switches are installed on more than 100,000 water heaters and about 15,000 air conditioners.
“That’s an incredible success rate,” says Lisa Staggs Herrmann, Butler Rural Electric Cooperative’s manager of member and community relations. “It shows members’ commitment to holding down costs.”
And participation continues to increase, resulting in millions of dollars in reduced energy costs over the decades, says Craig Grooms, Buckeye Power’s vice president of market operations.
“Reducing demand is a very cost-effective way to limit the amount of power generation needed during peak load conditions, and that directly leads to savings for co-op members,” he says.
Nancy Grant is a member of the Cooperative Communicators Association and the American Society of Journalists and Authors.