Fueled in part by rising costs and liabilities associated with new power plants, the state's electric utilities in recent years have stepped up their efforts to encourage their customers to cut back on the amount of power they use.
“Peak power is the single most significant reason we have to continue to build large generation,” said Jessie Langston, OG&E's vice president of retail energy. “To the extent we can smooth out that load shape and reduce the peak, we can reduce the need for new power.”
“Peak power” refers to the amount of electricity used when demand is at its greatest. In Oklahoma, that tends to be highest in the late afternoon and early evening of hot summer days — when most Oklahomans have their air conditioners working the hardest.
Utilities must ensure that they can provide all the power needed for these peak times even though demand for those few hours can be much higher than the amount of electricity needed at any other time of the year.
Peak power can be many times more expensive than nonpeak electricity because utilities typically build power plants to cover that cost, and idle those plants when the power is not needed.
To help offset peak-power costs, utilities now include conservation in their long-term energy use projections.
“Five years ago, we would not have sat in a planning room and had someone ask how much I expect customers to conserve, but today, conservation is being looked at as a generation source,” said Eric Raines, consumer program manager at Public Service Co. of Oklahoma.
Conservation is not a new message, but it is a challenge in an energy-producing state like Oklahoma where many consumers think of using energy as almost patriotic.
“It's a challenge,” Raines said, “because in our area of the country where energy is relatively inexpensive to the rest of the country, we're talking about saving money, and some people honestly look at me and say, ‘My bill's not that high.'”
Rather than just focusing on reducing total energy use, the utilities are pointing out the benefits of using energy more intelligently.
“We're not talking about conservation. We're talking about being more efficient in how we use energy at all times. What we see is when people use much more energy efficient system and divert much of their energy use to off-peak times, that lowers the amount of capacity we have to have. We have goals to reduce peak demand by 40 to 50 megawatts, which would otherwise require $100 million in new capacity.”
Utilities in Oklahoma and throughout the country have focused much of their effort on encouraging consumers to reduce the power they use during peak times.
The effort is fueled by the rapid rollout of Smart Meters, which allow the consumer and the utility to see exactly how much power is used at what time throughout the day.
The details vary from utility to utility, but under the various programs, consumers are charged a higher-than-normal price for energy used during peak times and a lower-than-normal rate for off-peak hours.
Besides reducing energy during peak times, the state's utilities also offer other programs and incentives designed to encourage consumers to use less energy.
Most utilities have programs that help their lower-income customers reduce costs through better insulation, weatherized doors and windows and other upgrades.
Other programs provide discounts or rebates for energy efficient upgrades to everything from lightbulbs to windows to air conditioners.
“When customers conserve energy, it allows us to lower our costs and it allows our system to be more efficient,” Langston said.