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Promises and Problems of Electrification

June 9, 2023
No matter how much we would like for it to be different, natural gas and nuclear baseload generation will for many more years be the bridge.

As the push to decarbonize continues in the U.S. and much of the world, electric utilities and power producers are working toward net zero carbon emissions. They’ve improved infrastructure efficiency while increasing their reliance on zero carbon renewable generation sources. In addition, electrification, another strong decarbonization initiative, is taking hold, creating the need for more generation and grid capacity.  

The move to electric vehicles (EVs), both passenger cars and fleets, is well underway and many experts believe EV adoption is going to happen sooner than predicted. Another growth area is the trend toward total electric homes and commercial buildings.

These initiatives almost certainly will reduce the use of fossil fuels and lead to measurable progress in our quest to decarbonize. Even in the best-case scenarios, however, it will take time and trillions of dollars. The U.S. Department of Energy reported late last year that independent estimates reveal that the U.S. needs to expand electricity transmission systems 60% by 2030 and may need to triple current capacity by 2050.

Some locations in the U.S. might meet President Biden’s goal of 100% clean electricity by 2035, but I don’t see the entire country being fueled by zero carbon sources 12 years from now. No matter how much we would like for it to be different, natural gas and nuclear baseload generation will for many more years be the bridge—a very long bridge—to 100% clean energy. In fact, I believe nuclear energy should remain a permanent part of the zero-carbon generation mix.

I’ve written before about the dire need to upgrade and build new transmission and distribution infrastructure. Grid owners and operators recognize and understand the challenges and so far, they’ve managed to meet those challenges as more intermittent renewable energy has been added to the generation mix and as they’ve seen their loads grow. The pace and the challenges are intensifying, however, creating an urgency for which most are not prepared.

The challenges with connecting intermittent renewable energy to the grid has commanded attention for years, but challenges and opportunities associated with electrification haven’t garnered much attention until more recently.

I, therefore, want to share some insight from a panel discussion I heard in April at the IEEE Grid Edge Conference. Panelists Kevin Geraghty, San Diego Gas & Electric’s (SDG&E) chief operating officer, Elliot Mainzer, California Independent System Operator’s (CAISO) chief executive officer, Colton Ching, Hawaiian Electric Co.’s (HECO) senior vice president, planning and technology, and Mark Lauby, NERC’s senior vice president and chief engineer, discussed their views on electrification. A few things that became clear early in the discussion were that predicting and managing electrification is an enormous challenge, and outlooks and strategies often vary widely based on regions served and customer types.  

SDG&E’s Geraghty pointed out that in a place like Las Vegas, you can predict growth by looking at the dirt (i.e. vacant land) around the city. That’s where most of the load growth will occur, Geraghty said. In Southern California it’s different, load growth is created by customers’ behavioral changes. As an example, he explained that a primary source of electrification, which is directly related to climate change, is the addition of air conditioning to homes and other buildings in SDG&E’s service territory.

Ching of HECO, which serves five of Hawaii’s six islands, said electrification is the biggest challenge the utility will face in the next 20 years. Ching said electrification will change the way HECO serves customers, as well as require it to educate customers with the goal of changing the way customers think about their own electricity use and the way they do business.

NERC’s Lauby predicted that electric vehicles (EVs), both passenger and fleet vehicles, will be responsible for the largest initial load growth in the U.S. He said EVs and EV chargers must be grid friendly. Lauby also believes that utilities should receive government incentives to support and enable the e-mobility push, and that electricity providers need to “get in front of” the fast-growing EV Revolution.

Mainzer, speaking for CAISO, which operates 80% of the state’s transmission system, talked about the mammoth task of decarbonizing the fourth largest economy in the world by 2045. He discussed the amount of new capacity that will be needed for EVs alone. For me, however, one of the most important comments was about the impact climate change has on long-range planning. Mainzer said that historic weather patterns and past events are no longer a predictor of the future, and that generation and transmission planning must include a “buffer” for the unknown, unpredictable events that are sure to occur.

The panelists also agreed that utilities must be proactive. They must change their historical wait until it’s needed approach to a “build it and they will come” approach. Geraghty said that utilities are responsible for creating models to convince regulators and policy makers that they know where the load growth will be, not just for EVs, but for all electrification initiatives, including those related to commercial and industrial customers.

The panelists discussed a lot of important information and presented many insightful perspectives, too much for me to cover in this column. But I want to leave you with one more tidbit. They agreed that the grid is changing rapidly and the need to adapt is urgent. Utilities must stop looking for the perfect technologies and solutions available today. They must instead choose solutions that will work today while also leaving an opening for new technologies that will become available in the future.

“If we are looking for the perfect technology we will miss out and it will be too late (to adapt),” Ching said.

About the Author

Teresa Hansen

Teresa Hansen is Endeavor Business Media’s Vice President of Content – Energy, where she is be responsible for content published in T&D World, Utility Products, and Energy Tech, Endeavor’s newest media brand in the energy franchise. In this role, Teresa is responsible for Utility Analytics, which includes two face-to-face events, Utility Analytics Week and Utility Analytics Summit.

Teresa has spent her entire career in the electricity industry. Prior to joining Endeavor, she was Vice President of Global Content at Clarion Energy. In this role she was responsible for all content presented at POWERGEN International, DISTRIBUTECH International and HYDROVISION International, as well as the content published on Clarion Energy’s North American media brands—POWERGRID International, Power Engineering, Renewable Energy World and Hydro Review. Teresa has 25 years’ experience as a technical writer and conference content creator, with 20 years at Clarion Energy (formerly PennWell). Her previous energy-related experience includes 13 years of service at a nuclear power plant and a brief stint as a senior research analyst for an energy marketing and trading company.

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