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No Rolling Blackouts? Thank Boston's EnerNOC04:03
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Workers in EnerNOC’s war room monitor demand for electricity in power grids across the country. (Courtesy)
Workers in EnerNOC’s war room monitor demand for electricity in power grids across the country. (Courtesy)

BOSTON — The sky-high temperatures are making demand for electricity soar right up there with the mercury. So with near-record loads on the power system, why aren’t there running blackouts?

One big reason is an innovative Boston company. EnerNOC effectively sells power to grid operators only during peak times when they need it most.

It's high noon of the company’s busiest day of the year. Located in a high-rise office building in Boston’s financial district, EnerNOC’s operations center looks more like a war room. One wall is a bank of computer monitors showing the stress on the power grid across the country, from green to orange to red. And then from one of the dark red areas comes a hotline telephone call.

"As of 11:30," the carefully enunciated alert reads, "PJM is implementing emergency mandatory load management reduction, long lead time for the following areas..."

PJM is the largest grid operator in the country. It's asking for power savings with the alert. Immediately, EnerNOC sends electronic signals out to its clients in the affected regions. And rows of EnerNOC workers man the phones.

"I was calling to let you know," says Matt Barnes through his headset as he monitors one company's power usage, "that the New York grid service operator dispatched a demand response event at noon. We hadn’t received confirmation yet from your site."

EnerNOC’s clients are factories, grocery stores, hotels, office buildings — all sorts of places that use a lot of power. The Boston company is basically paying them to cut their electricity use. That way the grid operators that pay EnerNOC are able to handle the surge in demand that comes during the worst part of the heat wave.

With these calls to clients across the hottest regions of the country, manufacturing production lines get shut down. Lights dim. Air conditioning gets dialed down. One such customer is Boston's Harpoon Brewery. It shut down its operation after getting the call.

"There is an inconvenience factor to suddenly turning off all the lights in the brewery," says Harpoon's chief brewing officer, Al Marzi, "and turning off the air conditioning unit in the offices and shutting down the bottling line and things of that nature.

"Obviously we wouldn’t do anything to jeopardize the product, so the brewhouse stays running, the chiller stays running. But we cut off what we can to save some power."

And to make some money. Harpoon gets $8,000 a year to be part of the demand reduction system, regardless of whether it gets the call to cut back. Marzi says Harpoon also wants to be a good corporate citizen, helping to make sure that rolling blackouts aren’t necessary.

After all, he says, a brewery is always a good place to take a little break from operations.

"It’s on a hot day like this," Marzi says smiling, "that if we do have to shut down the power it’s a good time to have an ice cold beer!"

Collectively, customers like Harpoon help reduce power use by thousands of megawatts at the peak time of this heat wave. EnerNOC CEO Tim Healy says for grid operators, that’s basically the same thing as paying an auxiliary power plant to come online and produce extra megawatts of power.

"We’re very much a substitute for throttling up a peaking power plant," Healy says as he watches the hubbub of activity in his company's operations center. "Instead, we throttle the demand down, and keep that next power plant from having to operate."

Those power plants that are used only a few days a year when demand peaks? They tend to be the oldest, least-efficient and the least-environmentally friendly ones. Healy says they’re also the most expensive.

"Having a select few industrial, commercial and institutional customers reduce usage like that saves everybody across the entire electrical system from having to pay those excessive rates," he says.

The spot price for electricity in New England Friday spiked to more than $700 per megawatt hour, about 10 times the average price the rest of the year. Without EnerNOC and its client companies like Harpoon cutting back, that peak price would have shot up even higher.

This program aired on July 22, 2011.

Curt Nickisch Twitter Business & Technology Reporter
Curt Nickisch was formerly WBUR's business and technology reporter.

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