Electricity beats the summer heat in Alabama

Published 11:20 pm Monday, June 22, 2009

Summer begins officially this week with the solstice, but you didn’t need a calendar to know that summer has arrived.

Alabama is going through its first heat wave. Our state recently recorded the first triple digit temperatures of the year, and even in the night, the mercury doesn’t drop enough to cool things off.

With the rise in temperatures comes the rise in electricity use, as we try and keep our homes and businesses cool. It is no surprise that summer has the highest electricity use, putting the greatest demand and the greatest strain on our electrical grid. Yet few would know that even in these hot months Alabama is a major net exporter of electricity, and power generation is a major part of our state’s economy.

Alabama has a high state rank in electricity generation. Most of our electricity is generated from coal, as befitting a state with a large coal industry. However, large portions of our power are generated from two other sources: hydropower and nuclear.

Alabama is a national force in nuclear power generation. Our two nuclear power plants produced more than one-quarter of all the electricity generated in the state, and that output increased recently when the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) restarted a nuclear reactor at its Browns Ferry nuclear power plant that had been idle for more than 20 years.

Alabama is also a major force in hydroelectricity, one of the top producers east of the Mississippi. Our state has more than two dozen hydroelectric dams, located mainly along the Alabama and Coosa rivers. Hydroelectric power typically supplies at least 6 percent of Alabama’s electricity, and creates some of the most beautiful and most recreationally used lakes in the state, from Lake Wheeler to Lake Martin.

While we generate a tremendous amount of power, we also use a tremendous amount. Most of our state’s electricity goes to commercial use, and that is no surprise considering how much energy is needed in traditional industries like steel and paper.

Yet Alabama’s per capita consumption of residential electricity is one of the highest in the country as well. We use air-conditioning a lot during times like these, and even in the winter, most homes use heat pumps that run on electricity. Nobody is looking forward to the electric bills coming after this heat wave.

There are some simple and effective ways to reduce electricity consumption during these heat waves.

First of all, experts say to make sure your air filter is refreshed. Having a clean filter is the easiest and most inexpensive way of improving efficiency of your air-conditioning. Replacing a dirty air filter is probably the simplest, and most often overlooked maintenance job there is.

Your thermostat is next. The rule for efficiency is to “set it and forget it,” changing temperatures often is one of the easiest ways of wasting energy. Experts say that setting the thermostat at 78 degrees or higher is the most efficient temperature for summer months.

Experts also say to “be a fan of the fan.” Most of us remember a time when the fan was our air conditioning. However, fans used along with air conditioning keep things comfortable without having to lower the thermostat. Every two-degree increase in your thermostat can result in a reduction of up to 10 percent in your air conditioning energy use, and the cost of running a fan is minimal. The difference between 72 degrees and 80 degrees can drop your power bill by almost a third.

It looks to be a long hot summer ahead. Let’s hope that the power stays on, that our bills do not shoot up too much, and that our state’s generating plants continue to hum along.

— State Representative Jimmy Martin’s column appears each Tuesday.