Demand Response MetersGenerally, when electricity demand rises in an area, we just fire up some source like a gas plant or a coal plant, or put more water through a hydroelectric dam, to produce more electricity to meet that demand. But what about other users voluntarily shifting their use to compensate for that rise in demand? This concept of Demand Response sounds simple, but until recent technological developments, like a smarter grid and rapid energy communication and control systems, it wasn’t feasible since the response time needed to be in minutes, not hours.

Some users can shift their energy usage to different times of the day to help offset spikes in demand. One such user, the Northern Pacific Paper Corporation (NORPAC) in Longview, Washington, is a giant consumer of electricity. NORPAC uses huge thermal mechanical pulping refiners, driven by over three dozen 6,000-horsepower motors. But not all of these motors need to operate at specific times of the day. So when demand suddenly rises, we can turn some of them off instead of firing up a coal plant.

As detailed in a recent article in Forbes, an energy company in the Pacific Northwest just demonstrated that Demand Response works really well. During a surprise test by the Bonneville Power Administration, Energy Northwest demonstrated that the Demand Response Aggregated Control System (DRACS) could be relied upon to handle rapid changes in electricity demand. As part of this demand response project, NORPAC agreed to let Energy Northwest shut down eight of their three dozen motors at a moment’s notice to reduce electricity demand. During the test, the DRACS system was able, through voluntary shut downs and supplemental battery storage, to free up 35 MW of electricity in 4 in minutes.

If we evolve our energy infrastructure as we should in the years to come, it will involve more than just a smart grid, but a smart total system. If a number of electricity users are able to take part in demand response, then the potential for electricity savings is large. We also won’t have to build as many new power plants, wind farms or solar arrays as we would otherwise have to build. Nor would we need as many new transmission lines or new pipelines. The savings could top $200 billion over the next 20 years if implemented across the country.

What potential does Demand Response have for meeting growing electricity demand? What can policymakers do to encourage projects like DRACS?