For years, area power plants have strained to run the air conditioners Marylanders use to combat the summer swelters. But feeding power to electric heaters and blankets during winter cold snaps has been, well, a snap.
That is about to change.
A boom in the construction of electrically heated homes has pushed Marylanders' winter power demand up so quickly that Baltimore Gas & Electric Co. expects winter use to overtake still-increasing summer peaks early in the next decade, company officials have said.
So BG&E, which has long been encouraging its customers to cut summer electricity use, is trying to cut winter demand, too.
As part of the company's new winter conservation push for residential customers, BG&E announced yesterday that it would pay its customers to permit the utility to turn off their electric water heaters during times of heavy power demand.
The water heater initiative is an extension of BG&E's long-standing Energy Manager program, which cuts residential customers's annual utility bills by $40 when they allow the utility to reduce power to their home air conditioners and heat pumps when demand for electricity is especially high.
Customers with gas- or oil-fired water heaters will not be eligible for the program.
BG&E does not have figures on how many of its 1 million residential customers have electric water heaters.
Statistics provided by the Electric Power Research Institute in Palo Alto, Calif., indicated that the fuel-run heaters are a majority of those installed in homes across the country.
Consumer advocates praised the utility's water heater initiative yesterday, saying it makes sense to reduce peak electricity use because it is expensive to fire up extra power plants just to serve a few hot or cold days.
But, noted People's Advocate John Glynn, it is somewhat ironic that the company is taking action to counteract the increasing popularity of big winter electricity users such as heat pumps, since BG&E has been promoting installation of that equipment.
The People's Advocate is the lawyer hired by the state to represent consumers in utility matters.
"It is a good idea to decrease energy use during peak periods," Mr. Glynn said. "But it certainly is true that pushing heat pumps tends to increase electrical peaks . . . and winter use of electricity."
Under the new program, which can help reduce peak energy demand in any season, customers will receive a credit of $16 annually for allowing the company to place a radio-controlled device on their homes' electric water heaters, the utility said.
BG&E says it will activate the devices to cut off the power to the water heaters no more than 12 times a year.
The company said it will limit the cutoffs to six hours or less.
BG&E has been experimenting with the devices and believes that those who sign up for the program will not suffer much inconvenience, said company spokesman Arthur Slusark.
The water that is in the tank when the power is turned off will retain much of its heat, he explained.
Mr. Slusark said the company hopes to have 80,000 Marylanders signed up for the water heater program by the end of the century, reducing peak demand a total of 48 megawatts.
A megawatt is enough energy to light 10,000 100-watt light bulbs.
S. Edward Hargest, BG&E's manager of economic research, said that although the utility expects the winter peak demand for electricity to surpass the summer peak within about 13 years, the winter strain on BG&E's power plants won't actually be worse than the summer strain for several years after that.
Power plants can generate and deliver more electricity on cold days than they can on hot days, Mr. Hargest said.