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November 27, 2023 Focus: Clean Energy

Higher demand for electricity means more capacity needed

HBJ PHOTO | ANDREW LARSON Regional utility company Eversource operates this Hartford substation.

Not only will more chargers be necessary to support the influx of electric vehicles expected over the next decade-plus, but the electric grid also needs to expand.

When a person plugs in an electric vehicle at their home, it pulls about 10 KW of electricity. A typical homeowner’s peak demand is around 5 KW or 7 KW.

“If you just added one EV, you just doubled your house demand,” said Digaunto Chatterjee, vice president of system planning at regional utility giant Eversource. “You add two EVs, you tripled your house demand. If all of your neighbors do the same, a fuse is going to blow and the transformer at the end of your street is going to blow.”

He said Eversource needs to upgrade its infrastructure on a street-by-street basis.

If regulators don’t provide a means for utilities to upgrade their infrastructure, there will be times when system demand exceeds what the equipment is designed to deliver, which could lead to reliability problems and brownouts, he said.

Also, if fast chargers can’t pull enough electricity to run at full capacity, charging times will increase.

“People will have just a crappy experience charging their cars, sitting there waiting and waiting and waiting for the car to be fully charged,” Chatterjee said.

Electric vehicles aren’t the only reason for higher demand.

The state’s other goals include zero-carbon electricity by 2040. Also, natural gas and oil-fired heating systems are being replaced with electric systems, furthering the crunch.

By 2035, peak demand is expected to occur in the winter, instead of in the summer as it does now. That’s because electrified heating systems consume more electricity than air conditioning, said attorney Lee D. Hoffman, chair of law firm Pullman & Comley.

“… By 2050, we are essentially more than doubling what our top peak demand was, at any point in time,” Hoffman said.

The all-time peak demand for electricity in New England was about 30 GW on Aug. 2, 2006, according to data Hoffman analyzed from ISO-New England. By 2050, summer peak demand will be 40 GW, and in the winter, it will be 57 GW.

The increases include higher demand from transportation electrification, but in the winter, the vast majority of additional demand comes from heating electrification.

“The problem that we’re facing is we have to double our existing electric capacity, and we have to do so without introducing any new units of fossil fuel electric generation,” Hoffman said.

To accomplish its decarbonization goals, the state will need to use a combination of wind, solar, hydroelectric, battery energy storage and nuclear energy sources, he explained.

Connecticut already has the highest electricity costs in the United States, along with Alaska and Hawaii. Ultimately, it will be ratepayers who pay for infrastructure upgrades, Hoffman said.

“Are we willing to pay even more in order to upgrade our grid in such a fashion?” Hoffman said. “That has real significant policy implications. Can we afford to do this given the fact that we’re a coastal state, and that climate change is real, and has some pretty significant effects? Can we afford not to?”

Grid modernization

Eversource says it would need to build 14 new substations and upgrade eight existing substations to meet electricity demand by 2040, projects that would carry a combined price tag ranging from $1.5 billion to $2.3 billion.

However, a spokesman for the Public Utilities Regulatory Authority said Evesource’s 2017 rate case didn’t include evidence that any substation upgrades have been “completed, contemplated or requested … that are attributable to electrification policies.”

“Substation builds and upgrade costs are incredibly dependent on system location, design and usage characteristics, so we would characterize these estimates as speculative at best,” said Joe Cooper, deputy director of communications for PURA. “As back-of-the-envelope estimates, they most likely include generic, bulk costs attributable to both transmission and distribution, which are recovered from ratepayers differently.”

PURA is engaged in efforts to modernize the electric grid, including preparing the grid to support electrification policies, Cooper said.

The agency has launched the Light-Duty EV Charging Program, which encourages people to charge electric vehicles during off-peak hours, along with other initiatives to encourage customers to optimize their energy usage.

Hoffman said that while he supports the Lamont administration’s energy goals, it will require significant investment.

“The reality is, if we’re going to move the needle on climate change, what Connecticut is doing is the right way to go,” Hoffman said. “The question is whether or not we have the political will and the economic will to do what’s right with respect to climate change, or whether we’re going to continue with incremental steps.”

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