Will Brownouts Return to America?

It is Only a Matter of the Will to Solve the Issue

Robert Carlson

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Back in the 1970s and 80s America experienced what was referred to as “brownouts”. It was not a blackout of electric service, but it heralded an era of possible shortages of electricity to power our energy intensive civilization. Brownouts occurred on days and during hours of high demand for electric power primarily to run all the air conditioners people had become accustomed to and dependent on.

As with all impending crises the a/c was not the sole culprit when the power became short. The brownout occurred when too many users demanded too much power from the grid that the voltage dropped below the acceptable 110-volt threshold. Incandescent bulbs would dim. Compressor motors would strain to stay running to pump the heat out of our houses, officers and apartment. Many commercial HVAC systems had under-volt protection so the motors did not overheat and become damaged. Lesser systems merely strained until they failed.

The utility companies were faced with the prospects of building another generation plant at a cost of hundreds of millions to billions of dollars. Even with funding available, it would take years and even decades to bring a new plant online.

As mentioned above, it was not merely the A/C demand that browned-out the grid. It was all the dishwashers, laundromats, 100-watt bulbs and refrigerators all plugged in and pulling power at the same time. There arose an alternative to building more capacity which would be less expensive and faster to market. That idea was conservation.

The utility companies devised marketing campaigns to limit electric demand during peak hours and days. The appliance manufacturers (under pressure from the EPA and other Federal government agencies) increased the efficiency of their products. Incandescent light bulbs were replaced first with Compact Florescent bulbs (later LEDs) which consumed far less electricity. Homeowners were encouraged to wash dishes and laundry at night when other demand was lower. The strategy worked because spending $10 million on conservation marketing campaigns to save 10% of use eliminated the need to spend $100 million or more for 10% increase in capacity.

Today utility companies have Internet-connected metering to record how much electricity a customer uses during each hour of the day. Pricing is time dependent.

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Robert Carlson

Robert Carlson is a writer & photographer who has been active since the mid-1960s. His writing spans many genre & can be found in venues across the Internets.