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Record heat strains energy grids in Colorado, across the West

Posted at 9:29 PM, Sep 07, 2022

DENVER — Record temperatures in Colorado and across the western United States aren’t just stressing humans — they’re stressing our power grids, too.

In Colorado, Xcel Energy had to temporarily lock thousands of smart thermostats to ease the strain. Impacted customers had opted into a money saving program with the company.

In California, officials are pleading with residents to reduce energy use at peak hours to avoid rolling blackouts.

Engineers and environmental scientists view it as a vicious cycle: our energy consumption is a driver of climate change; climate change drives more severe weather events throughout the year; and severe weather events, in turn, cause us to use more energy.

“The technology is going to have to keep up,” said Aisling Pigott, a PhD student at CU Boulder’s College of Engineering who specializes in utility grids.

Pigott and her team recently conducted research on how to most efficiently use air conditioning to cool homes in hot summer months.

“The primary reason that we have HVAC installations as an option is because they keep us safer, so we’re not roasting in our buildings at 120 degrees,” she said of the heat waves and grid strains currently in California. “So, my first thought is like, "Oh my gosh, I hope everyone is okay."”

Pigott said that similar grid issues in Colorado are a “realistic concern going forward,” and is dedicated to developing new technologies to ease the strain while maintaining our use of power.

Record heat strains energy grids in Colorado, across the West

In the meantime, she and her colleagues are working to understand how we can use our current technologies. They recently published findings on a hot debate that’s popped up in households for decades: whether we should be turning off the air conditioner when we leave our homes for work or school.

“There’s a lot of people who think that the startup cost of turning your A/C on after it’s been off all day and your house is nice and warm is a lot higher than if you had just run it all day,” Pigott said. “There’s parts of that that are true, and parts of that that aren’t true."

After analyzing their own models, along with data from several states, Pigott and her colleagues found that while the A/C has to spike temporarily to recover from higher temperatures after being left off while uninhabited, it still requires less energy than running the unit all day. With a conventional central A/C system, they concluded turning it off while a home is uninhabited during the day could result in 11% energy savings per year. However, factors such as home insulation, unit efficiency and climate variability can alter the results.

Even still, Pigott’s advice to most homeowners is plain.

“If you’re going to be gone for the whole day, definitely turn off your A/C,” she said.

Improving the energy efficiency of your home and the appliances within it can be a more endurable long-term strategy, if it’s an option for you. Under the Inflation Reduction Act signed into law by President Joe Biden this summer, many credits and incentives are offered for upgrades of this kind, including rebates for furnaces, water heaters, and other home appliances, 30% tax credits for energy efficient windows, doors, and insulation, and 30% tax credits on the installation of solar panels.