The Simple Energy Story- 7 Things You Don’t Think About When You Turn On The Lights


1.       Everything comes from the ground- we move mountains, crush earth, and remove land to get the uranium,  coal, natural gas and oil that creates the electricity to light your home and keep you cool. Your demand for electricity fuels these industries and these activities.

2.       Fossil fuels are buried, fossilized sunshine; they are energy sources that have been created over hundreds of millions of years. We dig up coal, natural gas, and oil, and burn them to turn a turbine, powering a generator and producing electricity. The whole process converts thermal energy to mechanical to electrical energy.  

3.       The more we demand power (the more we leave lights on), the more energy infrastructure and power plants we need to satisfy the demand. This leads to a large stock of power plants in our cities and communities.

4.       Utilities must have enough power plants to power each and every home on its most demanding day at its most demanding time (typically a hot summer day around noon). Electricity is constantly being produced so that your AC can turn on exactly when you demand it. Utilities  have built thousands of power plants, and consumers have funded them, so that more power is constantly being produced than is used. We typically do not experience brownouts in the United States for this reason.

5.       The lower your energy demand is on the hottest day, the lesser the need for huge or new power plants.  On your electric bill you will see a  "demand charge.” This is based on the power production capacity that utilities must have to meet every household’s need on its most demanding day.  If users can lower this “peak demand,” fewer power plants will be needed and demand charges will be lower.  You can make sure your household energy use doesn’t spike too high, for example, by reducing other demands at that time; you can wait to run the dishwasher or washing machine until you turn down your air conditioning. 

6.       If you are not actively conserving, you’re probably increasing your energy use, driving up the power capacity needed to serve the area.

7.       The cheapest, most sustainable form of energy is the energy not used. It’s cheaper for utilities to pay you not to use energy when it’s toughest to provide power to everyone, than to build new plants for those moments of extreme demand. This concept is referred to as “demand response,” or “demand management.”  In the future, the  consumer will play an increasing role in responding to the needs of the grid, and helping to balance the load by reducing consumption on the most demanding days. Demand management is also critical for the integration of renewables into the grid because solar and wind power are produced at certain times during the day. New technologies are providing more information on energy use patterns, and are increasing communication between utilities and consumers.  Both the utility and the consumer have an incentive to ensure that peak power remains low. Ultimately, if demand spikes too high on those extreme weather days, new power plants will be needed, which cost hundreds of millions of dollars to bring online. This comes out of the consumer’s pocket, born by charges and fees on electric bills, and involves a lot of risk for the utility. If the power provider and the consumer communicate and work together to manage the electricity loads, everyone wins.

The power provider and the consumer have a stake in reliable power supply and minimizing the impact on the customer’s wallet, air quality, and community life. How you use electricity affects how utilities produce power and how much they need produce. Ultimately, you, as a consumer, have the ability and responsibility to manage electricity use, and facilitate clean power and clean vibrant communities.