Electrical demand swells in Columbia

Columbia utility customers use 30 percent more electricity today than in 1990 in part because of an increase in appliance usage.
Wednesday, August 2, 2006 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 8:55 p.m. CDT, Wednesday, July 2, 2008

It wasn’t long ago that the Columbia Water and Light Department was urging people to use more electricity. “Your home will be happier at Christmas time with a new electric appliance,” the department proclaimed in a 1966 advertisement in the Missourian.

Fast-forward 40 years to the present. No longer encouraged to buy more electrical appliances, Columbia utility customers are consuming more electricity than ever before and creating more of a demand on the city.

That’s one of the driving factors behind Proposition 1, a measure on Tuesday’s ballot that asks voters to allow the city to borrow $60 million for its electric utility. While city officials acknowledge that some of the projects that would be financed by the bond issue are intended to accommodate growth, they also note that the people who already live in Columbia are using 30 percent more electricity today than in 1990.

With the rise in use of home office equipment, security systems, personal computers and electronic gadgets, customers are consuming more, causing electricity costs to increase along with the demand.

“I think the increase in usage from just 15 years ago is what shocks people more than anything,” Water and Light spokeswoman Connie Kacprowicz said. “Appliances have actually gotten more energy-efficient, it’s just that people are using more low-usage appliances than before.”

Jim Windsor, head of fiscal planning for Water and Light, said the average Columbia resident used 674 kilowatt hours per month from October 2004 to June 2005, but that rose to 702 kilowatt hours per month during the same period a year later.

“It really is more of the base-load type of stuff that is causing this increase,” Windsor said. “This illustrates more of an increase in appliance usage.”

A renter’s guide published by Water and Light lists electric ranges, water heaters, dishwashers and hair dryers as the common household appliances that use the most electricity.

Water and Light director Dan Dasho said the size of electric service panels installed in today’s homes reflects the desire for more power capacity.

“It used to be, 30 or 40 years ago, 60-amp (electric service panels) were normal for residential homes, then it was 100, now 200 is the basic. Today, you’re even seeing 400-amp panels installed,” Dasho said. “It’s because circuit breakers are filling up. Especially if you have, for example, an electric shop in your garage, or a hot tub, then you’ll be using a lot more power.”

The bond issue on Tuesday’s ballot seeks $60 million to pay for capital improvements to the electric distribution system. If approved, it would provide $2.65 million over five years to cover the cost of basic electric connections for new customers. City officials expect 1,300 to 1,400 new connections each year. Also included is $5.2 million for residential infrastructure improvements.

“If I tried to say this bond issue is more for growth, or for reliability, I’d have to say it is for both,” Dasho said. “We’ve seen a 3.7 percent growth in residential meters across town, but in terms of growth in population, it’s only about a 1.7 percent increase. One of the only thoughts we have is that kids move out but stay in town, creating another meter for someone already counted in the population.”

John Dupuy is vice president of research and development at Socket, an Internet and telephone provider founded in Columbia in 1994.

“We certainly have more people on the Internet than we’ve ever had before,” he said. “About three-quarters of the population in the U.S. now have Internet connections, and that implies that at least that many have computers.”

Dupuy said that while he has definitely seen a rise in Internet use, he has also noticed an increase in customers who use wireless connections on laptop computers.

“There is a bit of good news on the horizon. We’re seeing more people using laptops instead of desktop computers,” Dupuy said. “(Laptops) are designed to use less electricity because they work well on a battery. More and more of our customers, especially broadband, are using wireless, so they can use their laptops anywhere in their homes while using less electricity. And that’s a good trend.”

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, total electricity use in the United States will rise by more than 40 percent between 2000 and 2025.

“I would think that (the increasing electricity demand) is going to plateau,” Windsor said. “At some point, you’re going to have a saturation point. I mean, how many electronics can one household have?”

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