During last week's heat wave, air-quality sensors along coastal New England recorded "unhealthy" levels of pollution baked into the hazy, humid air. Unfortunately, the northeast's biggest polluters don't take these dog days of summer lying down. When millions of air-conditioning units crank in synchrony, power companies burn everything they've got to keep the lights on — particularly at the region's oldest, dirtiest, and most expensive power plants.
Wyman Station, the power plant on Cousins Island in Yarmouth, is one of the dirtiest in Maine — you can see its huge smokestacks from the Eastern Prom in Portland. Its 1970s-era boilers burn home heating oil, but fortunately, the typical wholesale price of electricity (about $40 for a megawatt-hour, the energy required to charge 200,000 iPhones) isn't high enough for the plant's owners to justify burning its expensive fuel. As a result, Wyman sits idle for most of the year.
On Friday, though, New England was using so much electricity that the price for a megawatt-hour had hit $450 in Maine. Wyman's owners wouldn't return phone calls, and specific details of how much oil they were incinerating to beat the heat are proprietary. But ISO-New England, which administers the region's wholesale electricity market, issued a general warning at noon on Friday that "available capacity resources are incapable of meeting anticipated demand," a sign that Wyman Station and every other power plant in the region were almost certainly running at full throttle.
"Last time we had a peak this high was in 2006 — our all time-record demand was 28,130 megawatts," says Marcia Blomberg, spokesperson for ISO-New England. Shortly after our conversation on Friday afternoon, though, ISO-New England's website reported that New England's appliances were sucking down 28,175 megawatts' worth of electricity — the equivalent of roughly 46 nuclear power plants, and an unofficial new record.
Still, changes under way in how we buy and use electricity might mean that the days might finally be numbered for Wyman and other antiquated power plants. Last Wednesday, just before the heat wave struck, officials cut the ribbon on the new Rollins wind farm northeast of Bangor, and (steamy) breezes throughout the heat wave ensured that wind turbines in Maine were generating electricity that otherwise would have come from filthy smokestacks elsewhere.
Utilities are also realizing that it's cheaper to ask some of their customers to turn down the A/C, or to close their factories early on hot days, than to maintain their oldest and least efficient power plants. On Friday afternoon, some utilities offered their customers financial incentives to use less electricity, and in theory, new "smart meters" installed at many Maine homes and businesses over the past year could let more households and businesses take part in similar programs.
If there is one bright side to our heat waves, it's that any energy conservation efforts we make individually — no matter how small — make a bigger difference on these peak load days than at any other time of the year.
Shut down your computer and find some unplugged work to do during the hottest part of the day (or, better still, trade indoor air conditioning for a dip in our 65-degree ocean) — they'll burn fewer BTUs at Wyman Station and the rest of the region's dirtiest, most expensive power plants. And as a side bonus, your home or office will also be cooler with fewer machines generating heat indoors.