December 18, 2000
Lights out! Schools, businesses turn out lights to conserve energy
by Bronwyn Wilson
Senior Staff Reporter
With the way electric power is in short supply this winter, you'd think the Grinch arrived to steal holiday joy.
But of course, a furry green creature from a Dr. Seuss story was not responsible for schools and businesses turning the lights out this Christmas season. Instead, the culprit was a lack of rain and fewer snowfalls in the Cascades. Less rain and snow translates to less water in the rivers. And a drop in the water level results in a corresponding drop in electrical production.
Puget Sound Energy (PSE) spokesperson, Dorothy Bracken said, "It has been an extremely dry fall." She explained that the amount of water in the rivers that is typical this time of year is 40-45 percent less than usual in the Pacific Northwest region. This has limited the amount of hydroelectricity that can be generated by the region's dams.
In addition, California sells its surplus power to the Northwest during the winter months and the Northwest sells its surplus power to California during the summer months. The Northwest uses the greatest amount of power in winter due to heating use.
California uses the greatest amount of power in summer due to air conditioning use. However, this season, California stopped generating surplus power. A number of power plants in California were shut down for maintenance, not anticipating the cold spell which hit their area causing them to rely on their own surplus power rather than selling it to the Northwest.
To exacerbate conditions, the Northwest experienced a cold front on Dec. 8 and a "Stage 2" warning was issued by the Pacific Northwest Utilities Conference Committee. A stage 2 warning indicates that power companies need to communicate to their customers a need to cut back on energy.
With all this in mind, the Northshore School District was given a "Stage 2" warning to reduce power use. In cooperation with PSE, the school district turned the lights out at eight schools between 5 p.m. and 8 p.m. beginning Sunday, Dec. 11. The school district operates on a reduced power rate, a rate that gives them a reduction on energy costs but subjects them to an interruption in power use when there is a shortage. This reduction in power use has not been needed for eight or nine years ‹until now.
"There are 212 schools and/or buildings with the interruptible rate with Puget Sound Energy," Bracken said. "It requires schools to cut back their electricity between 5 p.m. and 8 p.m., based on a formula of so many watts per square foot."
When the cold front didn't hit as it was thought, the restrictions were lifted at noon on Tuesday, Dec. 12.
Northshore School District's Director of Maintenance, Terry Taylor, said, "If it continues to be cold in the Pacific Northwest, we'll have this happen again."
By being on the interruptible rate, the Northshore School District has an annual savings of $180,000 to $225,000. And not only does the district save money, it saves power during shortages.
Programs affected by the lights-out policy include after school sports and activities, winter concerts and after school daycare. "We try to schedule activities to other buildings," Taylor said. "We had to cancel some (events)."
In an effort to conserve energy, some businesses have joined the effort. Even the Bon Marche in downtown Seattle turned off the switch that lights its holiday Christmas star. The star has been a beautiful addition to Seattle's landscape and has brightened the store's rooftop every Christmas since 1957. With restrictions now lifted, the store turned the star's lights back on Dec. 15.
"Governor Locke is asking us to be mindful of when we're using power and how we're using it," said PSE spokesperson Bracken. Morning and after-dinner hours are the peak times when the greatest amount of power is used.
Bracken said that this is the time when people are doing the dishes, the laundry, getting baths and have the heat on. "The governor's recommendation is to shift activities after that peak time," she added.
As for Christmas lights, Bracken suggests that PSE customers go ahead and enjoy them. Prudent measures, she said, would help conserve energy, such as turning the lights on after the peak time of 5 to 8 p.m., such as at 8:30 p.m.
She explained, "When you have a million customers, (the Christmas lights) are a new added load."