$6 million dollar hot showers

Early 2009, Puget Sound Energy, the largest privately owned utility company in Washington State informed Bainbridge Island residents that their peak demand load had exceeded the carrying capacity of the existing three substations. These peak load events occurred during extreme cold weather mornings. Whether it is due to too many long hot showers or too many cups of latte. As a result, the utility was considering adding a new substation and new power transmission lines with a price tag of $6 million for the substation and $6 million for the transmission lines. Community responses ranged from supportive to indifferent with small groups of oppositions. This is not surprising as we live in a society that our culture is deeply entrenched in the belief that we must support our lifestyle at all costs.

However, as the economy turned south and anti-tax sentiment grew, we learned that peak load is a major headache for utilities. Why? Because utilities cannot count on customers quietly accepting rate increases. The response may be something along the lines of the recent defeat to increase taxes. This is why utilities are instead asking their customers to help them cut costs.

Peak load is an interesting issue that combines technical and social/behavioral challenges. One cannot approach this subject with just technical fixes or basic educational outreach solutions. A more reliable long-term solution must include changes in policy and regulation along with technical and social investments. Any measures short of this will be simply a band-aid.

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