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Shifting when customers use power a hot topic for Alliance

Image of Vancouver's West End and snow-capped North Shore mountains

Industry Trend series event on capacity-focused demand side management draws a big crowd

Not so long ago, BC Hydro's conservation programs were all about reducing energy waste by boosting efficiency and changing behaviours around electricity use. But like many utilities across North America, BC Hydro is now looking at how shifting when we use power can ease the pressure on the electricity grid at peak times.

Those shifts could cut costs and help keep rates affordable by delaying the need for new substations, power lines, and other costly infrastructure in communities.

In recent years, BC Hydro has been conducting residential and business trials in a bid to build effective programs that work for both customers and BC Hydro. While no programs have been developed at this stage, Alliance members were keen to attend a recent Industry Trend Series event that talked about the why and the how of what's known in the industry as capacity-focused demand side management.

"We've been talking about Power Smart for 30 years now, but we really never talked about when electricity is used, how it correlates to peak use, and what challenges to the system that peak in use creates," said Christy Intihar, who covered the basics, and beyond, in a 45-minute presentation to Alliance members.

A senior commercial program manager with BC Hydro, Intihar set the tone by saying it's no longer just about how much electricity we use in total. It's about when we use it as well.

"I explained that BC Hydro is a winter-peaking utility, which is highly unusual," she says. "Most utilities peak in summer because of air conditioning. We peak in the winter because of our space heating load, and our water heating load. And our peak is at 6 p.m., where in many other utilities, it's in the afternoon."

A variety of factors have created record peak power needs in those winter months, including the explosion of baseboard heating needs in Vancouver hi-rise towers that replaced much smaller buildings that were often heated by gas-fired systems. This past February, BC Hydro broke the record for the highest daily average energy consumption and the highest peak hourly demand – the hour its customers use the most electricity – when demand reached more than 10,000 megawatts on February 11.

Trials seek to determine whether load shifting is a viable solution

After years of successful energy efficiency programs, BC Hydro is now investigating the development of programs which could address grid constraints driven by growing peak electricity demands. Historically more and more grid infrastructure would be built to meet these demands.

With data from forecasts and energy planning, BC Hydro, like many other utilities across North America sees an opportunity to address growing peak demand through load shifting combined with demand side management.

"Where all utilities are going is to look for that flexible load where you can move stuff around to address various strains on the grid," said Intihar. "You start from a position of needing to address an individual peak for a local load or a substation that's over capacity for a certain time of day."

Factoring into the way that load is shifted is the North American electricity market, where U.S. utilities with an excess of daytime solar or wind-generated power might sell that power to B.C. for little or no cost. While BC Hydro has the advantage of "storing" electricity behind dams, generation by solar and wind don't carry that advantage unless they are teamed up with large battery installations.

"In some cases, utilities in the U.S. will pay us to take that energy to help them balance the grid, but it comes at different times of day and night," she says. "The questions include, how do we use it? Do we use it to charge things at certain times of the day, like batteries or electric cars? How do we create the flexibility that isn't there now?"

Programs might include incentives and technologies (such as controls) to help shift energy use in certain neighbourhoods or regions of B.C. The question BC Hydro will answer with pilot programs is which methods of shifting load are effective and practical.

Here are some of the capacity-focused DSM pilots BC Hydro has run to date:

  • Smart and managed charging for businesses using fleets of electric vehicles
  • A 'peak saver' program in which residential customers are financially rewarded for limiting their energy use during times of peak energy use.
  • Incentives, in addition to savings on energy-efficient equipment, for businesses and residents in specific neighbourhoods facing the potential need for a new substation.
  • Smart electric vehicle charging for single-family homes, designed in part to charge cars during non-peak periods.
  • Sinope controller trial (programmable baseboard thermostats and water heater load control devices) allowing residential customers to program and control heating from the web or smart phone.
  • Smart charging bus trial, which compared battery-powered BC Transit buses from several manufacturers to test ways to make the charging load more flexible.

What's in it for customers?

Central to BC Hydro's ongoing trials around load shifting is designing programs that pay off for customers, through energy savings and incentives. The jury's out on what will work best, but there are some encouraging signs.

Large commercial customers already pay demand charges, which charge customers based on their peak usage. It's analogous to water use at a home that might increase dramatically when multiple sprinklers are used at the same time in the middle of summer.

"Many customers don't understand what the demand charge is," says Intihar. "They just look at their bill and see a charge they have to pay BC Hydro. But we've found that when we start to have the conversation about demand response or being able to shift demand, customers looking at their own systems realize they can do certain things to manage their demand charges as well as participate in our programs.

"They can reduce their overall demand charges because they might be able to use their own building management systems in certain ways, discovering they have more flexible load than they thought they did."

Residential customers have shown interest in some of the side benefits of load controlling technologies, such as a water heater controller that comes with leak detection, a nice value-add for residents concerned that a gushing water heater might flood their basement. What really seems to resonate with homeowners, however, are the local effects of increased peak load, such as more electrical infrastructure and maintaining in the reliability of power.

"When demand for power grows, it puts more load on the substation, which means we're going to have to run more wires, more poles, more substations and more infrastructure in your community to serve that load," says Intihar. "We tell residents that, maybe if we work together, we can manage that load more efficiently so that we don't have to do that."

What's in it for Alliance members?

Marketing Alliances manager Michael Travers was impressed by the turnout for the capacity-focused DSM talk, maybe even a bit surprised.

"It was our most popular event so far," says Travers. "I think that speaks to the optimism and interest that these Alliance members have. They're always interested in where things are going and how we can help our mutual customers."

Travers says BC Hydro is going to need to find ways to shift load around through various controls and protocols, and the Alliance could play a leading role in the delivery of programs that make that happen.