05 MARCH 2021

Energy Conservation Offers Control After Failure

How Texans Can Manage Their Energy Consumption

There is plenty of blame to go around after Texas' run-in with an epic winter storm. It's clear that seasonal storm events, considered rare or "once in a lifetime," are becoming more common as the effects of climate change start to manifest. While it is easy to point fingers, one thing is certain; it will take time to provide solutions that produce results. So how can we, as individuals, help? Well, you might be looking at the answer right now - your home.

Residential power consumption counts for approximately 36% of the total energy use in Texas. Residential electrical load varies between 28% in temperate months to 48% in warm summer months. If we could reduce our home usage by half during peak loads, it would give 24% more power back to the grid and help avoid sudden power scarcity plus all of the consequences that come with it. The remaining load reduction must come from commercial and industrial buildings. To understand how to conserve energy at home, we must understand how much energy our households need from the grid. 
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Breakdown of peak loads by sector. Source: The ERCOT Grid and Beyond; presentation at UEDA Winter Forum, March 13, 2019

Let's consider one of the hot summer days Houston experienced last year in August. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, on August 15th, the state nearly reached peak capacity as it is prone to do during Texas summers. Net energy demand reached 73,163 MWh at its peak, a 40% increase from the day's lowest point of demand during the cooler morning hours. Significant upswings like the one on August 15th occur regularly. Still, despite robust performance with notable variation in the summer, the grid failed Texas during a bitter cold snap in February. Now, for the average Texan, factors such as grid reliability and generation are out of our control. But what if we could be part of the solution in the future? Given that ERCOT predicts peak demand to grow to 77GW this year and continue to increase in subsequent years, we are likely to see another extreme weather event that puts pressure on the power grid. But next time, we might be able to adjust our energy consumption in preparation. 

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Household Energy Use in Texas  Source: EIA. 2009 Residential Energy Consumption Survey.


The first step in conservation is knowing how much energy your household consumes; this number is called EUI, which stands for Energy Use Intensity expressed in kBtu/sf or kWh/sf. Once we understand our home's EUI, we can manage it, which means we can reduce it. Reducing EUI during hurricanes, floods, or heat waves would lessen the stress put on the Texas grid and potentially help avert future failures. There are three easy ways to reduce your EUI. The lowest cost option is weatherization, which includes filter replacements, weather-stripping, insulation, vapor barriers, and duct sealing. A slightly more expensive option is to upgrade your lighting to LED fixtures. Self-programmable and dimmable LED lights take it one step further and offer additional EUI reductions. The third option is to upgrade your HVAC, which is the highest cost option but extremely effective. If an individual chose to implement all of the above, they could reduce their overall  energy use by 21%, while also reducing the grid's seasonal peak load.  

Appliances, electronics, and lighting account for the largest piece of home energy use in Texas. It's a little less straightforward, but we can still identify those energy loads and reduce them using "smart" products. To start, any homeowner can sign up at the Smart Meter Texas website and get energy consumption data in 15-minute intervals. The granular view of electricity data allows one to spot "phantom" loads – appliances that use energy even when switched off. 

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15-minute interval data for a home; red bar represents phantom loads that increase energy usage during nights.Source: Smartmetertexas

Smart water heating is another option that uses low-cost sensors with Wi-Fi to allow for custom control. Homeowners can manually control water heating or put it on schedule instead of leaving it on, thus avoiding standby losses. Sensors also track energy consumption so you can identify when your water heater becomes a phantom! 

Smart plug loads are another way to reduce usage and identify phantom energy loads. In both efficiency and cost, the next step up is home automation systems that integrate lighting control, temperature control, and security systems under one umbrella. Implementing all of the above "smart" measures could reduce the average user's EUI by 52%!

One question that arises from discussions on conservation and the power grid is why not add another power plant? Firstly, building a power plant is a major investment. According to EnerKnol, one of the latest natural gas power plants coming online in El Paso, Texas, could cost $143 million. Considering the initial cost and the cost to run the plan for 30 years, the lifecycle cost of such a power plant would be $383 million. Secondly, according to a report by American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy, reducing EUI might be 50% more cost-effective than building a new power plant. 

Special incentives from the government can help Texans improve their homes while supporting the grid. Tax credits for new homes and for retrofitting an existing home with energy-efficient measures offer homeowners incentives to choose efficiency where they can. The Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs offers weatherization assistance for low-income families. A few cities in Texas also provide limited rebates for home improvements. For instance, the City of San Marcos Energy Efficient Home Rebate Program allows for rebates up to 50% of the investment. Austin Energy and cooperatives such as Guadalupe Valley Electric Cooperative also offer incentives for home upgrades. For the homeowner who likes to stay ahead in the energy efficiency game, utilities and municipalities may offer targets for meeting specific goals such as heating demand, cooling demand, and dehumidification demand. One such initiative is underway in New York, with The New York State Energy Research and Development Authority evaluating such targets.  

The least expensive power source is energy conservation. If each of us could put a dent in our energy use, we could potentially avoid the next disaster and maybe even put a little money back in our own pockets.

 


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