Conserve Energy on Summer’s Hottest Days With a Text

College students wondered, “Why build a new power plant when we could just ask people to cut down on their AC use instead?”
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While utilities reach for more carbon-intensive fossil fuels to address energy demands on the hottest—and coldest—days of the year, these undergraduates have found a different way: Changing citizen choices with a text message.

Photo by Hero Images/Getty Images 

A year ago, then-sophomore Harry August got a little carried away with an assignment for his Brown University environmental policy course about New England’s dirtiest and most expensive power plants. Now that assignment is an online tool on the Mass Energy Consumers Alliance website: “Shave the Peak” helps cut emissions by warning consumers when the dirtiest plants come online.

August doesn’t need inside information on the region’s old fossil fuel infrastructure. These so-called “peaker plants” are just predictable, firing up only on the hottest and coldest afternoons of the year when demand is high enough even for their costly, polluting energy. And their disproportionate carbon emissions are reinforcing the very climatic changes that are bringing them online—heat waves like those that recently baked New England and caused power outages in Southern California.

August stumbled upon this pattern during his homework. Energy demand consistently peaks on the hottest summer afternoons, when businesses are still open, but residents head home and flip on the air conditioning. According to one 2005 study, residential air conditioning in California accounts for upward of 40 percent of all residential energy use during peaks.

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To meet demand during these few, costly hours of the year, utilities have historically powered up old infrastructure and even pushed for the construction of more. But August, after some aggressive Googling, had a new idea: “Why build a new power plant when we could just ask people to cut down on their AC use instead?” His professor agreed, and together they pitched the concept to the administrator for the Rhode Island Division of Public Utilities and Carriers. The administrator was skeptical.

August decided to do it anyway and biked home from the meeting to gather a few friends around the computer to brainstorm names for their new product. On July 21, 2017, the first peak day, he and his classmate and co-founder, 22-year-old Kai Salem, sent their first message by email and text to about 100 environmentally concerned citizens across Providence, Rhode Island, whose emails they had compiled in a Google spreadsheet. The alert reminded these volunteers to reduce their energy consumption during peak hours by turning down the air conditioning and running other appliances later at night.

While a proof of concept, the paltry number of participants was a reminder that Shave the Peak required scale. It turns out that, a month earlier, an awkward but propitious day at Salem’s new job set them on the right track.

“I was a brand-new intern at Providence Rhode Island’s first-ever sustainability fair, and I was supposed to be sitting with the Mass Energy folks,” Salem explained. But her friend who had offered to hand out Shave the Peak fliers couldn’t make it. “So I was doing double time, feeling guilty, splitting my attention,” she said, eventually just sitting at Mass Energy’s table with her Shave the Peak flyers in hand. “I was scared to talk to them about my own product ... I was afraid they wouldn't find it interesting,” she admitted, laughing.

But Mass Energy Executive Director Larry Chretien was interested. He’d spotted #ShaveThePeak in his Twitter feed some days earlier and saw potential. Chretien knew from a report by the Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources that 40 percent of the average citizen’s energy bill pays for just 10 percent of their energy—the energy generated during demand peaks. These disproportionately expensive hours, he said, occur during heat waves and are even more common in winter when the demand for gas heating drives utilities to burn oil instead.

A month after the sustainability fair, Salem and August were called into Chretien’s office to pitch the concept for the second and final time.

Since then, the updated interface and infographics have been published by Mass Energy, and Shave the Peak has garnered press coverage and tripled its user rate.

Still, for their strategy to work, residents must decrease their energy use enough for ISO New England, the nonprofit that monitors and purchases the region’s energy, to buy less total energy during peaks. This effectively stops the peaker plants from coming online, because they are only cost-effective if peak demand stays high. And Shave the Peak is fighting an uphill battle in the Northeast, which is not equipped to help consumers exert influence.

“Everyone in New England is on one grid,” Salem explained. “And it’s impossible to trace where the electrons come from once they’re in the grid.” Consumers can’t select which energy they consume, only how much. While residents who “shave the peak” might reduce the overall demand enough that ISO New England purchases less energy from peaker plants—and more from renewable sources—this requires consistent collective action for which there are no financial incentives.

This is not the case everywhere. In 2006, the California Public Utilities Commission began allowing utility companies to install smart meters that monitor not just the overall wattage, like their New England counterparts, but also the time of use. Many utilities can now charge residents as well as companies less for energy during non-peak hours, thus directly rewarding those who avoid use when the demand is highest.

Despite the technical improvements New England states require to apply this strategy, August, Chretien, and Salem already see civic ramifications for their project. “Industrial users are trying to address peaks, but the main population doesn’t know, even a lot of the people who care about energy,” Salem said. “While big goals like carbon pricing are important, that is a political battle which takes a long time. For now, we have to educate and involve citizen advocates using short-term projects so we can eventually create long-term change.”

Editor's note: Shave the Peak also has a third c0-founder, Brown University undergraduate Lauren Maunus, who helped conceive, design, and pitch the project. She was not available for comment at the time of publishing.

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