What does your electricity use look like?

Part II of an energy and research discussion for my parents (part I)

We all expect that when we flip the light switch at night, the lights will turn on. We won’t have to stumble around in the dark feeling around for a glass of water or to let the dog out. There are people and algorithms working around the clock to make sure when you and I request power, it is available.

This is exactly what our electric utilities do. They focus on delivering reliable and safe power to meet our “demand”. Because most utilities do such a good job of delivering electricity, we never think about the details.

The chart below gives a good idea of my family’s electricity demand last Thursday, October 24th. You can see there are many spikes as we made coffee and ran the dishwasher in the morning and other larger spikes later when we returned from work. Your energy use probably looks just as spiky though the details will certainly differ.

Cartoon of my family’s energy demand on Thursday, October 24th.

Our household daily usage is fairly similar day-to-day, even if the exact timing of making Henry and myself breakfast can differ quite a bit.

Sharp spikes to smooth curves

If every household has spiky electricity demand, how can our utilities anticipate the amount of power they need to produce at any one moment? Utilities rely on my demand, the demand of all my neighbors, and your demand being similar day after day. This helps them figure out a daily quantity which will likely be requested.

What about the precise timing of our morning coffee, how do they get that right? Utilities rely on having many customers and the law of large numbers. Not everyone makes coffee at 6:00am. Some make coffee earlier, some make it later, some not at all. When the actions of thousands of electricity customers are added together, their small differences smooth out the jagged spikes you see from my household when viewed in isolation. This leads to a very predictable energy demand throughout the day for a utility territory.

The below charts show electricity demand over three October days in 2017. The first is for a small utility with only 26,000 customers. This demand curve is already much smoother than my single household’s usage. And, the total demand across the contiguous United States is even smoother. In both of these cases, the demand has a cyclic peak-and-trough pattern with the lowest demand late at night.

The left figure shows the electricity demand for a small utility with 26,000 customers while the right figure is the total demand for the contiguous U.S. 1 Megawatt = 1,000,000 Watts

Utilities can make accurate forecasts of their territory’s electricity usage 24 hours in advance. Most can predict 24 hours ahead within 3% of the real value. This makes the cyclic peak-and-trough structure of demand very approachable for utilities.

Providing Electricity the Traditional Way

Over the past century, utilities have traditionally built enough coal, gas, nuclear, and hydro plants to match the peak electricity demand for their territory.

When a utility forecasts demand will reach 5,000 Megawatts tomorrow at 5:00pm in their territory, they make sure 5,000 Megawatts of their power plants will be ready to produce at that time. Human errors and mechanical failures can happen, and when they do, they are addressed. But, overall, the traditional system is very predictable.

The large scale introduction of intermittent renewable energy is changing this and will be the topic of the next post. Let me know if you have any questions or would love more detail. Check out the current energy use in your region with this amazing map.

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