A local Target store lets customers know that the store’s A/C load is reduced to help keep the region’s electric usage under control

When it’s a searing 100-degrees in Maine or New Hampshire, we concede it’s a worthy time to put on an air conditioner. But while A/C may take the edge off the heat for us humans, the strain is pushed onto the electric grid.

As consumers we usually only experience electricity’s effects – turning on the lights, running a fan, or powering a gadget. Yet, in the background is an extraordinarily elaborate system of transmission and distribution that ultimately ties back to a control room that looks remarkably like the bridge of the Starship Enterprise.

Here grid operators have job #1 of maintaining consistent electricity supply despite constantly fluctuating and limited data. While most power is purchased at bulk auction for competitive prices, when there’s a sudden flux of demand, options become limited and the real-time cost of electricity skyrockets. For example, when savagely hot temperatures hit the Northeast and anyone with an A/C kicks it on.

When a kWh Costs a Lot More than a kWh

On Thursday, July 21, for example, a power line failure knocked several power substations out of commission (Source: Portland Press Herald), an event which, combined with the heat, caused electricity prices to more than quadruple as backup generators and reserves were kicked in to meet the demand. The brutal pattern repeated that Friday, when from 1pm – 6pm power cost more than $250 per gWh, four times more than electricity cost the previous Friday, July 15.

The worst part of this equation is that the electric generators brought online to meet peak demand are often the dirtiest and least efficient tools to produce power – short cycle, peak-load firing coal or oil power plants (located in such picturesque areas as Cousins Island and Bar Harbor, Maine).

The utility companies’ solution to heavy summertime use is to build more and bigger power lines, often through previously undisturbed habitat.  The transmission build out is an expensive and intensive project, comprising pieces like this 286-ton transformer, made in Taiwan, the transportation of which requires a 16-axle truck and roads to be supported with extra steel bracing!

With all the cost associated with propping up the existing system, we can’t help but ask – why don’t we harness the sun instead?

The Vision of Distributed Solar

We’ve talked about the idea of distributed solar before, mostly in the context of our allies at GridSolar. The concept is this: install solar panels where power is most needed under peak conditions – the hospitals, schools and commercial buildings with large flat roofs, big A/C units, and population-dense neighborhoods.

Yarmouth, Maine - Solar Electric
This solar electric installation in in-town Yarmouth will offset peak electric use in the neighborhood when it produces more power than it uses

Since, almost by definition, solar panels will perform close to their peak when A/C loads are the highest, distributed solar accomplishes the goal of reducing strain from the grid without requiring expensive and inefficient peak fossil fuel inputs. Oh, and they have the added benefit of producing clean electricity the other 355 days when it’s not peak load!

Of course, you don’t need a huge installation to help the cause – literally every grid-tied solar electric installation helps take some load off the grid. Within ReVision’s customers alone there is over 2MW of electricity being eased off the grid during peak hours of use (as well as all the other times the sun is shining).

So, with solar electricity you can feel good about running your air conditioner, or even better – if you’ve gone to the beach, you can rest assured your system is helping run your neighbors A/C instead, and you’re racking up the credit. Now that’s cool!

More Resources on this Staggering Summer and the Grid:

We’ve stumbled across some really interesting materials on the state of the electric grid and our use of electricity. These might interest you, too: