If you take a close look at the winter electricity forecast from the folks who run New England’s power grid – that sounds like fun, doesn’t it? – you’ll see an interesting line amid all the numbers and verbiage:

“Forecasts take into account the 1,663 megawatts in energy savings from energy efficiency measures acquired through the region’s Forward Capacity Market.”

No, wait, hear me out: It really is interesting. (As for how the capacity market works, you can find every riveting detail right here.)

It says that in order to ensure the lights stay on, the powers that be aren’t just hoping that we don’t want too much electricity at the wrong time. They have used a complicated auction system to purchase big hunks of energy savings (promises to not need electricity) in the same way they purchased big hunks of energy production (promises to create electricity).

In other words, they are flipping the century-old concept of a power grid upside down. They’re not just paying people to create more electrons for society to use; they’re paying people so that society can operate with fewer electrons.

The idea has been around long enough that there’s a clever term for it – “nega-watt,” a play on negative megawatt – and it’s controversial enough that the U.S. Supreme Court is pondering a ruling on the topic. But I hadn’t realized how big a deal it is until I saw the winter forecast released by ISO-New England last week.

The forecast for the six-state power grid includes 1,663 megawatts of energy efficiency measures, which reduce demand all the time, and 587 megawatts of demand-response, which reduces demand on short notice in case of problems. That’s a total of 2,250 megawatts of not-using-electricity that has been purchased.

A megawatt is a million watts, and a common rule of thumb is that it’s the power needed to operate 1,000 houses at any given time. But I think 2,250 megawatts is more understandable this way: It is 1.8 times the maximum output of Seabrook Station.

In other words, if these promises hadn’t been purchased, we would need 1.8 more Seabrooks to reach the same level of confidence that the lights will stay on, even if we have a killer of a winter.

Can you imagine trying to build 1.8 more Seabrooks – or, more realistically, two or three new gas-fired power plants? Can you image the cost, the controversy, the protests of building them, not to mention the cost and protests over building the extra power lines to carry the electricity? What a nightmare.

Here’s another way to think of how big this is. In the six-state region, the all-time peak winter demand was 22,818 megawatts on Jan. 15, 2004. (Summer peaks, driven by air conditioning, are higher: The record is 28,130 megawatts on Aug. 2, 2006.)

What that means is, the purchased promises to not use electricity equal 10 percent of the maximum amount of electricity we’re likely to need at any time this winter.

That is a big deal.

If we’re going to continue growing the world’s economy without destroying the earth, air and water around us, which in the long run will destroy our economy and us too, we’re going to have to figure out new ways of doing things. Nega-watts strikes me as an example of those new ways.

(David Brooks can be reached at 369-3313, dbrooks@cmonitor.com, or on Twitter @GraniteGeek.)

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