What is the best way to respond to major electricity shortfalls? Plan now!

Countries can minimise the economic, social and environmental impacts of electricity shortages by developing emergency strategies to save energy well in advance of crises, according to a new report by the International Energy Agency (IEA).

The report says it is crucial for governments and utilities to plan measures that encourage swift electricity savings because prolonged shortfalls may reduce economic competitiveness by creating uncertainty in supply and increasing costs of electricity. In addition, extended shortfalls may also have a negative environmental impact: Consumers faced with blackouts or mandatory rationing of electricity often turn to on-site diesel generators, which can lead to greater air pollution.

The 2011 report, Saving Electricity in a Hurry, is an update of the 2005 IEA report of the same title. It draws on examples of countries where electricity shortfalls have occurred since the 2005 book was published. As well as pulling together lessons learned from these countries, the report draws on fresh analysis from the World Bank and others to highlight proven practices for implementing emergency programmes.

In addition to examining the Japanese government’s plan for mitigating the electricity shortage caused by the 11 March earthquake and tsunami, the report presents recent shortfalls in the U.S., New Zealand, South Africa and Chile to highlight options for officials from governments, academic institutions, the private sector and civil society organisations to consider when developing electricity policy and emergency energy-savings programmes.

Nobuo Tanaka, Executive Director of the IEA, noted that electricity shortfalls are likely to continue as political, regulatory and financial hurdles make it difficult for governments and energy utilities to invest the estimated USD 16.6 trillion needed to meet annual growth in global electricity demand of 2% over the next 25 years. “Moreover, natural events such as droughts, earthquakes and plant repairs will continue to occur and pose reliability issues for existing supply,” said Mr Tanaka, who presented the report at a workshop in Johannesburg that took place at the initiative of South Africa’s Department of Energy. “As a result, developing emergency demand-side energy-saving programmes as insurance against delays and disruptions in supply may be an effective strategy for many governments to consider.”

The report reaffirms three well-established steps which officials can take to ensure they are prepared for shortfalls, which occur when demand outpaces electricity available to customers.

  • Step one: Identify possible shortfall scenarios and project their anticipated cause and duration
  • Step two: Identify the main opportunities for saving energy with minimum negative impact on society and the economy
  • Step three: Implement a comprehensive package of energy-saving tools, including rationing, pricing, information campaigns and technology replacement

Insights from case studies

In addition to outlining these three steps, the report highlights best practices for formulating and implementing energy-saving programmes. The report recommends, for instance, clearly designating responsibility for planning and implementing shortfall management strategies. “Prior to an electricity shortfall, officials should decide on the form and duties of such entities, and consult eventual participants about their roles and responsibilities,” said Sara Bryan Pasquier, author of the report and a policy analyst at the IEA. “This will help the emergency-management team hit the ground running in the event of a crisis.”

An example of a best practice cited in the report is the energy-saving information campaign mounted by the Juneau Economic Development Council (JEDC) in Alaska in 2008 when an avalanche severed the transmission line carrying 90% of the electricity supply from hydroelectric facilities to Juneau. The information campaign advised consumers how to quickly and safely conserve electricity, and its impact exceeded expectations as Juneaus electricity consumption fell by 25-30% in six weeks. Most of the savings resulted from the adoption of energy-saving practices such as reducing lighting and appliance use, turning down thermostats, hanging clothes to dry and taking shorter showers. Addressing longer electricity shortfalls may require different strategies, but the results from Juneau show that large and sustainable energy savings are feasible even without initial high prices and large-scale technology replacements.

The report also highlights initiatives in South Africa and Japan in which authorities communicated with the public about the need to save electricity and avert blackouts. South Africa implemented an innovative Power Alert message system to provide real-time information on the shortfall and recommend specific measures that should be immediately taken. The information campaign in Japan following the massive quake earlier this year includes displaying electricity forecasts of peak-power/supply-demand balances on websites, in major train stations and on television. It also advises business and residential customers how to conserve energy and shift electricity use to off-peak periods.