New Energy Alert Can Do More Than Save You Money

To account for really energy high demand, New England utility companies have to start burning more megawatts of fossil fuels. An increase in the amount of fossil fuels burned means an increase in the amount of greenhouse gases emitted. Natural gas shown in blue, coal in orange and oil in red. (Shave the Peak)

To account for really energy high demand, New England utility companies have to start burning more megawatts of fossil fuels. An increase in the amount of fossil fuels burned means an increase in the amount of greenhouse gases emitted. Natural gas shown in blue, coal in orange and oil in red. (Shave the Peak)

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

PROVIDENCE — Three Brown University students have created a simple way to cut energy consumption, reduce carbon emissions, save money, and perhaps even stop construction of new natural-gas power plants. Through a free alert service they started called Shave the Peak, subscribers receive text and e-mail alerts on days when electricity use is highest.

If the weather forecast calls for 95-degree temperatures or higher, subscribers get tips for curbing energy use, such as turning down lights and delaying operation of energy-intensive appliances such as clothes dryers until later in the day when demand for power recedes.

“If you are going to do laundry, just do it after 7 p.m.,” said Lauren Maunus, an environmental studies major at Brown and a founder of Shave the Peak.

But it’s not just hot weather that triggers an alert. The notifications rely on forecasting from the power-grid operator that predicts the warmer weather will drive up electricity use and require supplemental power from high-polluting coal and oil power plants.

The alert service was the result of a group project in a class on environmental law and policy. After studying energy regulators such as the Rhode Island Public Utilities Commission, the state Office of Energy Resources and the operator of the regional power grid, ISO New England, the three students discovered a need with a simple solution: real-time information on energy demand.

The project required little time and money. The team enlisted fellow students to write code and design the website, and within a month the alert system was operational.

“It’s such a simple solution,” Maunus said.

As a leader with the activist group Rhode Island Student Climate Coalition, Maunus recognizes that a public awareness tool like Shave the Peak can bring about change just as effectively as organizing marches or pushing for new laws at the Statehouse.

“It’s been an interesting project using minimal resources and creating something at the grassroots level,” Maunus said.

So far this summer, there haven't been any alerts. Nevertheless, the program is functioning and Maunus hopes to have a critical mass of subscribers by next summer.

If enough people sign up for the alert and subsequently cut their energy use, the project will eliminate the need for auxiliary coal and oil power and even reduce the need for new fossil-fuel power plants, such as the proposed Clear River Energy Center in Burrillville.

Thus, adhering to the Shave the Peak alerts can save ratepayers money, reduce carbon emissions and other air pollutants, and halt the narrative among some policymakers that natural gas is the bridge to renewable energy.

“This is another strategy for opposing the new power plant,” Maunus said.