An ounce of prevention

After Y2K
After Y2K

A little over 14 years ago, a global apocalypse was imminent. As the clock ticked over to midnight on January 1, 2000, the computer systems of the world were going to drop off a virtual cliff. Huge sums of money were invested to rewrite or replace flawed code, leading to a renaissance for programmers of forgotten computer languages. Practitioners of Disaster Recovery (DR) and Business Continuity Planning saw unprecedented demand for their services. Uber-pessimists predicted a complete breakdown in civil society; a grim new future reminiscent of the Mad Max movies. Urban survivalists stocked up on food, supplies, weapons, and ammunition. Everybody who was anybody made sure they had a backup generator to provide electricity after everything went dark.

The new millennium dawned. I recall one report of an elevator in a building somewhere in the Far East that got stuck between floors as a result of the “Y2K Bug” as it was called, but that was about it. Like every Armageddon prognosticated before and since, the world gave a cynical little grunt, lied to itself that it would never listen to Chicken Little again, and kept right on trucking.

Was the whole thing an excellent example of humanity uniting to defeat a common foe, or falling victim to the very worst kind of snake oil salesmen? Either way, the world became just a little more prepared to deal with disaster. When an ice storm knocked out power to my community just before Christmas this year, I walked around the block and heard portable generators thrumming away at about a quarter of the homes. Most, I expect, were bought in the run-up to Y2K.

A decade and a half on, DR is a buzzword again but with a different meaning. As society becomes more affluent, what was a luxury becomes a necessity: Air conditioning, for example. During the dog days of summer, the sun rises with the “Dog Star” Sirius (or did when the phrase originated), the mercury rises along with it, people beat the heat by cranking the AC, the grid groans under the burden, and electricity utilities warn of rolling blackouts. Utilities offer cash to ratepayers that are willing and able to dial back their power usage during these periods, under programs that are collectively called Demand Response.

DR can be very lucrative. For the simple act of making the electricity meter spin a little slower during a so-called DR event (of which there may be two or three in an entire year), businesses and institutions can secure significant sums. The trouble is, not every ratepayer can take advantage.

I’m responsible for the energy budget of the City of Guelph, in Ontario, Canada. My biggest line items are water, wastewater, streetlights, and buildings such as City Hall, fire stations, and recreation centres. Water offers little opportunity to cut back. You can tell people to turn off the lawn sprinkler during a heat wave, but if you suggest that they drink or shower less, the public health folks will rightly tell you that you’ve lost your sense of priorities (and maybe your mind). Wastewater is also a non-starter – try telling people to avoid flushing the toilet when it’s already stinking hot and see how that goes over. Street lighting consumes plenty of power, but as the sun is setting and electricity demand is dropping anyway. Most city buildings double as “cooling centres”, providing shelter from the heat for those most vulnerable, so cutting back the AC ain’t gonna fly.

What’s left?

If we can’t avoid using the power, we could ease the pressure on the grid by getting at least some of the power from somewhere else. We have a couple of dozen backup generators scattered across the city, why not use those? The whole point of having them is to provide power in the event of a blackout. Doesn’t it make perfect sense to use them to prevent one?

The way Ontario environmental legislation is currently drafted, regardless of whether this is a good idea, it’s verboten. A generator can only be run legally if it has a Certificate of Approval, and that certificate spells out acceptable and unacceptable uses. Backup generators are held to a less stringent standard of emissions than a general use power generator. If a unit has a CofA for backup generation, it can only be run either during an outage, or for occasional testing and maintenance. Running it during a DR event is not an acceptable use. The law specifically states that if you run the unit for testing and maintenance, you can only run it for testing and maintenance, nothing else.  In other words, if you happen to do this testing during a DR event, you’re on the wrong side of provincial law.

The law already anticipates a certain level of emissions from backup generators – it allows a backup generator to be run for maintenance and testing purposes for up to 60 hours per year. All the DR events in a given year would add up to considerably less than that. If generator operators synchronized their test runs with DR events, it would result in no increase in emissions.

The provincial government, through the Ministry of Energy and the Ontario Power Authority, is wrestling with the problem of managing peak electricity demand. At the same time the government, through the Ministry of the Environment, aims to keep air pollution to an acceptable level. There is an opportunity to solve one problem without exacerbating the other, by letting us test our backup generators when that testing will also help ease the strain on our electricity grid.

Why not go for it?