This episode was first published on August 31, 2020.

Megan Hall: Welcome to Possibly, where we take on huge problems like the future of our planet and break them down into small questions with unexpected answers. I’m Megan Hall. 

About a month ago, I got a text message, asking me if I was ready to “shave the peak,” The message included a link with tips for using less electricity. 

Sign up for peak updates at greenenergyconsumers.org

Here at Possibly, we wondered— what are these peaks? And do we accomplish anything by trying to shave them?

We had Luci Jones and Fatima Husain from our Possibly Team look into this question. Welcome, Luci and Fatima! 

Luci Jones: Hi, Megan! 

Fatima Husain: Hello! 

Megan Hall: So what exactly is a “peak?”

Luci Jones: Peaks are times during the year when our electricity use spikes because there is a sudden surge in demand. Some peak days use almost double the amount of electricity of a normal day!

Megan Hall: Why do these peaks happen? 

Kai Salem: There are two different types of peaks. There’s winter peaks and there are summer peaks. 

Luci Jones: That’s Kai Salem from the Green Energy Consumers Alliance, a non-profit that sends out these “shaving the peak” messages. 

Fatima Husain: She says in the summer, peaks happen on really hot days when folks have the AC on at full blast. In the winter, they happen in the middle of a cold spell when everyone cranks on their heat.

Luci Jones: And the time of day matters too. 

Kai Salem: Almost always the peak will be between five and 7pm. And that's because it has been hot all day. People are at home, they're turning on their TVs, they're starting to cook dinner, the air conditioning is still running.

Megan Hall: What’s wrong with these peaks? 

Luci Jones: Kai says that when electricity use spikes, our typical energy sources aren’t enough to meet our needs. That means that the group operating our power grid has to turn on electric plants that are basically unused the rest of the year.

Kai Salem: You're starting to scrape the bottom of the barrel when it comes to the power plants we have available to us in New England. 

Fatima Husain: These inefficient power plants create twice as many greenhouse gas emissions per unit of electricity as the ones that run on a typical, non-peak day. 

Megan Hall: So, peak days don’t just use more electricity, they use electricity that’s made in ways that create more pollution?

Luci Jones: Exactly. Peaks are also expensive, because an increase in demand drives up electricity prices.

Fatima Husain: And they force us to build an electricity grid that’s up to the challenge of meeting those peaks, even though they only happen a few times a year. 

Megan Hall: How do organizations know that these peak days are coming?

Luci Jones: They use data about the weather and past electricity spikes to make those predictions.

Megan Hall: So, let’s say I get a text in the morning telling me about an afternoon peak. What should I do next? 

Luci Jones: Kai suggests turning on your AC in the early morning, and then turning it off and closing your windows to keep things cool inside. If you have an electric vehicle, charge it before the afternoon peak comes. 

Fatima Husain: Also, try to avoid using electric appliances like your dryer, washer, and dishwasher.

Luci Jones: And if you absolutely need to keep your AC on, increase the temperature by a few degrees.

Megan Hall: Will doing all of these things really make a difference?

Fatima Husain: Right now, most people don’t even know to try, so it’s hard to tell.

Luci Jones: But if enough people participated, lower peaks could decrease the overall cost of our electricity. 

Fatima Husain: As well as cut down on the extra greenhouse gas emissions that happen on those days.  

Luci Jones: That’s not going to stop climate change, but it’s a good start, especially because electricity production is one of the biggest sources of greenhouse gas emissions in the US.

Megan Hall: Great! Thanks, Luci and Fatima! 

That’s it for today. To sign up for text messages about the next energy peak, go to the public’s radio dot org slash possibly. Can’t get enough of this show? Subscribe to us wherever you get your podcasts. 

Possibly is a co-production of the Institute at Brown for Environment and Society and the Public’s Radio.