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El Paso Electric Interview: Summer 2019, Energy Efficiency, and Meeting Future Demand

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Henry Craver's picture
Small Business Owner , Self-employed

As a small business owner, I'm always trying to find ways to cut costs and boost the dependability of my services. To that end, I've become increasingly invested in learning about energy saving...

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  • Oct 25, 2019

This item is part of the Energy Efficiency - Fall 2019 SPECIAL ISSUE, click here for more

I thought the summer would never end this year in El Paso, Texas. I was wrong, of course, fall is here and those 100 plus days shouldn’t be returning until June. With the region’s most grid-challenging season over, I thought I’d reach out to our utility, El Paso Electric (EPE), to find out how we made it through without any blackouts and what the future holds in this ever hotter, ever more populated desert region.

George De La Torre, the utility’s Manager of Strategic Communications and Community Engagement, got back to me with some interesting info on the company and El Paso’s energy needs, and was quick to answer my follow up questions. From the information he sent me, it was made clear how much work EPE has had the past 20 years and will continue to have moving forward. As the region has grown substantially, refrigerated air has largely replaced swamp coolers and summers have continued to get hotter, peak demand in the summers continues to climb. This past summer was no exception to the trend: On August 26th, a new record was set, beating out the previous high from June 2017 by 50 megawatts. 

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In addition to a number of energy cutting initiatives, EPE plans to meet growing demand with more generation, having recently released the results of an RFP for new generation to be completed by 2022-23. What’s more, they have a new RFP for an advanced metering system, the bidder to be selected by April of next year. 

Henry: In the energy savings run-down you sent me, you highlight the importance of consumer efforts to cut down. Why do you think it’s so common for customers to overlook potential savings on the electricity bill? 

 EPE: We find that customers may not understand the savings potential that is available or how the reduction in energy will actually lower bills. Potential savings from energy efficiency come in a variety of ways such as making improvements to your home, air and duct sealing, and upgrading old appliances. There are also changes in behavior that you can make such as turning off lights and unplugging electronics. However, since customers only have access to their usage once a month, it is harder to make those changes in real time and customers feel like their change in behavior may be too late. Although we still will need regulatory approval, we have issued a request for proposal for advanced metering infrastructure or smart meters that would provide our customers with more control of their bills through more frequent and timely electric usage information – in some cases 15 minute increments.

Henry: How does EPE go about educating consumers on potential savings and related programs? 

 EPE: EPE provides energy efficiency presentations and materials to our customers and community partners, both in Texas and New Mexico. We collaborate with local health agencies and community resource centers, neighborhood and civil associations, local contractors and other utilities. EPE provides energy-saving tips and other EPE program information. We also use EPE bill inserts, newsletters, and social media to help educate our customers.

 Henry: In that same information packet, it’s recommended that customers keep their thermostats at 78 or higher in the summer and 68 or lower in the winter. Maybe I just hangout with very high maintenance people, but I don’t know anyone who keeps their thermostats anywhere close to those marks. Do you think people’s temperature preferences could be changed? How?

 EPE: Your home's ideal temperature for your heating and cooling system should provide convenience and comfort. The closer your thermostat setting is to the outside temperature, the more you'll save. You should also consider adjusting the thermostat anytime your house is vacant for four or more hours per day. By installing a programmable thermostat it’s easy to set your home's temperature lower while you are asleep or during the day when you are at work. The 78 degree recommendation is for when you are going to be away for several hours.

 Henry: EPE recently released the results of the RFP for new generation for 2022-2023. What drove the company to seek new generation? How did they decide on the generation slew that they did? 

 EPE: El Paso Electric (EPE) identified a need for new capacity and generation through its annual planning process. Our most recent forecast showed that EPE would need additional capacity by 2022 and that capacity need would increase in the following years. These new resources will replace older, less efficient generating units that have reached their useful lifecycle. The new generation was selected through a competitive all resource request for proposal. EPE undertook a consistent multi-stage evaluation process leading up to selection of the preferred resources.

 Henry: Peak demand has increased in El Paso for a while now, setting a new record this past August. How does EPE keep up? Do you think it will continue to increase? Do energy savings programs play a big role?

 EPE: Typical factors that continue to lead to new peak demands are gradual annual increases in the number of customers we serve (on average we see an annual increase of 1.7%), conversions to refrigerated air conditioning, as well as increasingly sustained hot weather. A new annual peak has been set by EPE customers in 17 out of the last 19 years and we expect that trend to continue. As a heavily regulated utility, we have an obligation to serve and we are prepared to meet these growing energy needs. We have an entire department dedicated to load forecasting and they primarily analyze data and trends to ensure our generation planning into the future continues to meets our customers’ demand.

 If your home or business is more energy-efficient, then you use less electricity which means less greenhouse gas is contributing to climate change. Lower electricity demand in turn avoids the cost of building new generators and transmission lines, saves customers money, and lowers pollution from electric generators.

Well there you have it folks, EPE, and all Texas for that matter, got through a blistering summer without having to cut the lights. Moving forward, EPE believes a combination of new generation and energy effiecncy will allow for continued success. Let's hope they're right.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Oct 25, 2019

Henry, tomorrow my utility, Burbank Water and Power (BWP), will be hosting its annual Open House for the community to visit its headquarters, its solar array, and its state-of-the-art, combined cycle gas generation plant. Visitors are encouraged to speak with energy planners - the city, apparently, needs fresh energy ideas. The invitation came in the form of a pamplet:

"TRANSITIONING to Renewable Energy
BWP is driving to a 100% greenhouse gas-free power supply by 2040. To achieve this ambitious goal, Burbank will need to say hello to more renewable energy.
This transition to greenhouse gas-free energy will take time, effot, and a lot of planning if we are continue providing services that are reliable, affordable, and sustainable.
Customers can play a huge role in helping our community transition to a cleaner energy future.
Going forwatrd we will generate more electricity from renewables like wind and solar We will continue our investigation of energy storage.
A successful transition will require all of us to think and behave differently.
Conservation and energy efficiency are effective tools and will become more important. When and how you use electricity will also make a big difference.
The articles here discuss how BWP and its customer-owners can help build a greenhouse gas-free future."

Reading Burbank's plea reminds of watching my son try to remove a nut and bolt from his bicycle using a pair of pliers. As he squeezed the pliers tighter and tighter, the nut was being rounded - he was only making his job more difficult. After I fetched a socket wrench, it didn't take long for him to realize he was using the wrong tool to get the job done.

By limiting its energy tools to renewables, BWP is only making its goal of a 100% greenhouse gas-free power supply by 2040 more difficult. It's forcing its customers to conserve energy, to use it more efficiently, to endure warmer temperatures, to use appliances at the right time.

What other options are there? In California's power pool, it's currently possible to enter a Power Purchase Agreement (PPA) with any generator in the state. I will present an alternative: in place of purchasing 33% of our city's electricity from a coal plant in Utah (Intermountain), why not purchase power from Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant? That the plant is 161 miles away is irrelevant - electricity is already efficiently transmitted from PG&E's northern service area on three-phase, 349 kV AC transmission lines to nearby Sylmar.

By switching its coal generation to nuclear, BWP could have an economical, 100% greenhouse gas-free power supply not in 2045, but in 2019. Overnight. Without "time, effort, and a lot of planning." Conservation? Energy efficiency? Totally up to how much customers want to spend on their electricity bills. BWP's electricity would be 100% GHG-free independent of customers' personal consumption choices.

I can only hope BWP is honest in their ambitions, but like my son they just don't know any better.

Henry Craver's picture
Henry Craver on Oct 25, 2019

But Bob, haven't you heard of the Three Mile Island??

I'm only kidding, of course. Personally, I try to turn of the lights when I leave rooms in my house, and it irks me when people don't. Yet I'm convinced that any hope we have at saving the climate lies in technological advancement, not conservation and personal sacrifice. One of the neccessary inovations is already available to us—nuclear—and we'd be foolish not to use it. 

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Oct 25, 2019

Interestingly, energy conservation only became an issue in the 1970s during the OPEC Oil Embargo, when there were real fears the U.S. might run out of gasoline, natural gas, and gas-fired electricity. Before then, Americans used electricity whenever they could afford it - and that was most any time they needed it. France, whose electrical grid was almost entirely shut down by OPEC, decided in 1973 to convert to 100% nuclear energy and by 1986 had reached 75% market penetration.

Proceeding with nuclear in the U.S. was an uphill battle, thanks to an economy powered by oil refining and natural gas. Though both California governors Jerry Brown and Gavin Newsom like to portray themselves as supporters of clean energy, the political careers of both were financed by imported natural gas. Jerry's father Pat set up Indonesian state oil company Pertamina as the exclusive gas importer for California; J. Paul Getty grandson Gordon Getty was a close friend of Gavin Newsom and financed his early business ventures.

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Oct 25, 2019

Yet I'm convinced that any hope we have at saving the climate lies in technological advancement, not conservation and personal sacrifice

You're right about this. It's fair to promote personal responsibility towards efficiency and conservation when achievable, and of course turning off the lights and not leaving the AC blasting while you're gone will not only reduce your personal carbon footprint but also save you on the bills, but the onus can't be placed on consumers alone. Systematic change and buy-in from the world's massive entities and stakeholders is what will drive real change.

That said, I'll continue to preach responsible behavior-- but I just won't act like buying LEDs = climate problem solved!

Henry Craver's picture
Thank Henry for the Post!
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