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Approaching Peak Capacity

Requests for consumers to shift their electrical usage when the power grid is strained can have "perverse effects."
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(Illustration: Denis Carrier)

(Illustration: Denis Carrier)

The warnings are familiar on unusually hot summer days. Your electric company announces that expected usage during the peak evening hours will strain the grid’s capacity, and asks customers to shift electrical usage to earlier in the day. However reasonable, such requests “appear to have perverse effects,” according to a research team led by University of Tennessee economist J. Scott Holladay.

The team examined a decade of data from the Baltimore-Washington area, comparing days when such alerts were widely publicized with days when they were issued but received little media notice.

The researchers found that, when word got out, power generation—which is driven directly by consumption levels—increased significantly between the earlier hours of 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. Unfortunately, there was “no discernible reduction” during the evening peak hours. The result, they write in the Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, was a total increase in electricity production and higher levels of CO2 emissions.

The findings provide a jolting reminder that behavioral nudges can backfire.

Quick Studies is an award-winning series that sheds light on new research and discoveries that change the way we look at the world.

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