Is CT’s electric grid ready to handle more power? – Hartford Courant

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On March 3 at 11:30 in the morning, an interesting thing happened on the New England power grid. The price for power dropped below zero. It was -$75.14 per MWh, to be exact. That’s MINUS $75.14.

That means instead of paying for power, electricity producers would pay electricity consumers to take their power.

It happened again on March 11 and again on March 12 and again on March 17 and again on March 18, 21, 29, 30 and 31 — in addition to hitting zero many other times.

ISO New England

On March 3, the large amount of solar power generated throughout New England lowered demand for power from the electric grid so much that the prices went negative. On this particular day it dropped to more than minus $75. This negative pricing occurred nearly 10 times in March. (ISO New England)

Granted, the negative prices didn’t last long and it’s spring — so-called shoulder season, when it’s too cold for air conditioning but warm enough that heating needs are low. The reverse happens in fall. But something else was also at work.

“Anecdotally, that is in large part due to, maybe exclusively because of, solar,” said Matt Kakley, a spokesman for the grid operator ISO-New England. “The influx of solar power and pushing prices down, particularly at times like the middle of the afternoon.”

The amount of solar and its hedge against power needs is one metric — not the only one, but a not unimportant one — that may provide a glimpse as to how well the New England grid can handle the electrification of motor vehicles, heat and other mainstays of life, that most everyone recognizes is coming, like it or not.

During this week's solar eclipse, it was clear in the renewable resource mix how much solar dropped off. It had been the main source of renewable power up until that point.
During this week’s solar eclipse, it was clear in the renewable resource mix how much solar dropped off. It had been the main source of renewable power up until that point.

After several years of failed policy attempts, the Connecticut legislature is again grappling with electrification as a way to address climate change.

This year’s efforts include another attempt to move away from fossil-fuel-powered motor vehicles, a concerted effort to push heat pump adoption, multiple avenues to increase use of solar power, methods for lowering carbon emissions in buildings, and even an opening salvo on lowering and potentially eliminating the use of natural gas.

Pushback from most Republicans and some Democrats has been the argument that the grid can’t yet handle widespread electrification and therefore policies that require electric power should not be put in place.

“We don’t have the capacity as we sit here today. Not even close. It’s impossible as we sit here today for everyone to be purchasing an electric vehicle and all of a sudden plugging it in,” said Senate Republican leader Stephen Harding, who is also a member of the Environment Committee. “We’d be in huge trouble. We’d be having rolling blackouts, brownouts, everything else on a consistent basis if we tried to do it today. … We need specifics on that plan (to get the grid ready) before we implement a policy like this.”

While Harding and others have said similar things multiple times, some say that’s exactly backwards. Policy signals are what drives grid development, they say, so do that first.

“Policy matters,” said Jeremy McDiarmid, managing director and general counsel at Advanced Energy United, which works with companies to help them transition to 100% clean energy while creating jobs and lowering prices in New England.

And then there’s all the views in between.

Ken Gillingham, an environmental economist at Yale who specializes in the adoption of new energy technologies and was on the federal government’s end of things during the Obama administration, said the move to widespread electrification is underway and we’re already adjusting without specific policies in many cases. “That doesn’t mean we don’t need policy signals, but I think that policy signals right now in the short run are not … necessary,” he said.

He was the senior economist for energy and the environment on the White House Council of Economic Advisers during the Obama administration.

Long term, he said, utilities should be planning for new energy technologies that will help address electrification needs as well as continue the move to clean energy sources. Technologieswould include intermittent ones like solar, energy storage, efficiency measures and any number of even newer technologies that are out there right now.

“In the short run, we can accommodate a lot more renewables on the grid; we can accommodate more electric vehicles, we can accommodate more heat pumps, and we should not have too much of a problem,” he said. “Stating that the grid is not ready as a reason for not moving forward is a cop out.”

“It’s not a binary thing. It’s not a ‘the grid is not ready/the grid is ready,’ McDiarmid said. “We certainly have lots of investments we need to continue to make on both the transmission and distribution side, and we need to do it in a coordinated fashion,” he said. “We’re putting the pieces in place, but we’ve got to do it better and we’ve got to do it faster.”

All of this leads to bigger questions. If the grid isn’t ready to handle more power, how do you get it ready; and if it’s already moving to get ready, how do you get it to move faster?

Turns out there are a lot of different answers.

The basics

When we talk about the grid, we’re talking about three main components. There’s the actual power, which is generated in many forms — from nuclear plants to gas plants to big renewable installations like wind and solar power. Individual companies own the plants. The money you pay on your bill for the power you use goes to them.

Then there’s the transmission system — those big high towers with lots of cables strung along them. They bring the power from the generating plants to local areas. The ISO is responsible for them and the federal government oversees their operation.

The third piece is the distribution system. That’s the substations and wires and poles that bring the power literally to your door. What we still refer to as a “utility” handles them. In Connecticut that’s Eversource and United Illuminating, which really are electric distribution companies — otherwise known as EDCs. They make their money by building and maintaining the wires, poles, substations, the meters on your house. The Public Utilities Regulatory Authority — PURA — oversees their operation in this state. Similar systems exist in just about every state.

The question often asked is this: If everyone bought an EV and/or a heat pump tomorrow and plugged it in — something that’s not going to happen — could the grid handle it?

Well, no.

“Obviously, if we were to electrify every end use today, the grid’s not going to be ready for that,” said Caitlin Odom, at RMI, originally called the Rocky Mountain Institute, whose mission is to assist in the transition to clean energy. “But the grid’s not intended to be ready for that. If the grid were to be able to host that kind of capacity for us to electrify everything today, we’d be wasting a lot of money.”

Odom manages projects related to infrastructure for electrification through an initiative RMI jokingly calls WIWADEE — or, what if we actually do electrify everything?

She too thinks the grid is ready for what it handles today and the short-term future. And, like many others, she gives the ISO high marks for responding to complaints from experts and states, especially Connecticut’s Department of Energy and Environmental Protection Commissioner Katie Dykes, who is pushing the ISO take stronger actions to transition to clean energy.

The ISO has completed a 2050 transmission study, and another that looks at the operational impacts of extreme weather on the grid. It’s also recently looked at the impacts of heating electrification, such as heat pumps, and its 2024 regional electricity outlook shows how the ISO is considering future changes and analyzing how to integrate them into the grid. They have noted that in the most recent auction for new power, 40% of the winning resources were non-carbon emitting. The ISO is also planning to switch from annual to seasonal auctions to better handle the changes in load that could see electricity peak demands occurring in winter instead of summer as they traditionally have.

Credit: ISO New England

ISO New England

Credit: ISO New England

“We’d be in a better spot if we were where we are today, like, five years ago, but a lot of good conversations and actions are happening at the transmission level to put in place the infrastructure that will be needed,” said Caitlin Marquis, a managing director at Advanced Energy United. She credits the ISO and the six states for working together — not always an easy process.

Rob Gramlich, founder and president of Grid Strategies, which consults on transmission and power modernization, said it is important to have the ISO now looking ahead 20 years or more.

“Of course they focus on the bulk power system. And so similarly, the utilities that own the more local distribution wires need to be proactively planning those systems, in particular for electrification and distributed resources,” he said. Distributed resources are things like solar systems homeowners might have.

State policies are tremendously important, he said, because they’re driving the transition and allowing the distribution system and electrification initiatives to all fit together. But if a state is looking to attract business, jobs and revenue from manufacturers and data center developers looking for places to land their companies, Gramlich said states may have to take a financial risk and build out some electric infrastructure first.

“It is a bit of a chicken and egg. And you’re not going to get any more chickens if you don’t get more eggs and vice versa. Somebody has to move first here and proactive planning of the grid is usually the first step.”

Chickens and eggs

The chicken/egg thing comes up a lot, including from David Porter who is the vice president of electrification and sustainable energy strategy at the Electric Power Research Institute, referred to as EPRI. EPRI has been working with the New England ISO on a number of issues, including the extreme weather impacts study.

“Good planning is integral to the success of the grid in the future. And a lot of that comes from knowing and understanding what loads are coming and when they’re coming,” Porter said.

To that end, EPRI has developed a tool it calls an eRoadMAP, which is an interactive map tool that shows where grid updates will be needed nationwide to accommodate motor vehicle electrification, especially for heavy duty vehicles.

The assessment uses information that comes from the vehicle companies themselves, including the actual telemetry data of where those vehicles are daily, where they stop, and how long they stop. EPRI even has all of Amazon’s fleet electrification plans built into its model.

“Now a utility, regardless of where they are in the U.S., can take a look at that tool and see where the growth in electric transportation is going to come, what the timing of it is, and they can start to plan for where they need to upgrade the distribution system, or potentially the transmission system to meet those loads in the future,” Porter said.

EPRI is already adding information that will incorporate low- to marginal-income or disadvantaged communities. And eventually it will add information related to heat pump adoption.

“If you understand as a utility where the loads are coming in and when, then you can plan accordingly. If you are looking to drive faster adoption, for example, then regulation or policy can help speed that up,” Porter said.

“It’s really interesting to hear these conversations in the state legislatures saying, ‘we can’t pass this policy because the utilities aren’t performing,’ when it’s actually the state legislatures that decide how the utilities are being regulated,” said Odom of RMI. “If you want the utilities to behave differently, then you should pass policies that dictate the regulators to change the behavior of the utilities.”

No matter how you slice it, you need proactive planning, she said.

And where do the utilities come down on all this?

What the utilities say

“We have built the capacity that we need for today and in the short term looking forward,” said Chuck Eves, vice president of electric operations at UI. “There will need to be investment. The system today cannot support our intentions for 2050.”

UI and Eversource’s perspectives quickly turn to focus on both utilities’ ongoing disagreements with their regulator — who is in the process of changing the regulatory system here. But in between their relentless assertions that PURA is not authorizing enough money for them to do their jobs adequately, executives at both companies say the grid is not ready for massive future electrification. They want a specific enforceable policy and a blueprint for how to achieve it from the state so they can figure out exactly what to do to make it happen.

Even without a plan, both indicate a lot of additional power fundamentally would be needed, as would upgrades to the local distribution hubs, substations, feeder lines and transformers. It’s not just a matter of getting more power to individual homes and businesses, they say; it’s updating systems to handle the new technologies the now century-old grid paradigm was never designed for.

That means accommodating two-way flow so excess solar power from homes can flow into the grid. It’s allowing electric vehicle power to flow into a home to help power it in emergencies. It’s shifting load needs to places such as highway rest stops which would now need to charge many vehicles at once, and to companies with a large number of fleet vehicles — such as school bus operations or public works vehicles. It means load increases to areas with large heat pump installation rates. It’s allowing for programmable systems to more strategically distribute when electricity-run items are used or charged. It’s providing the meter components that can handle all of that and any number of things that haven’t even been invented yet.

“We got a request for a four megawatt fast charger on the Merritt Parkway, and that’s a significant load in one place that will require a level of investment,” Eves said. “And then looking at how long it takes us to deliver a solution: A substation to plan and site can take five years. So we need to see it come in five years in advance.”

UI just completed a new Pequonnock substation in Bridgeportto replace the old one from 1956 that was threatened by flooding in Hurricanes Irene and Sandy in 2011 and 2012, respectively. A decade and $142 million later, it is 700 feet farther away from the Pequonnock River and several feet higher.

Digaunto Chatterjee, vice president of electric engineering at Eversource, offers a thick wad of numbers and calculations along with the complaint that many customers and legislators want to ignore people like him with a master’s in electrical engineering, who do distribution and transmission engineering for a living.

“You think the grid doesn’t need to be upgraded?” he asked rhetorically. “If you have a peak demand of 5.2 gigawatts and you’re going to be adding four gigawatts of electric demand on top of the 5.2, I think it’s delusional to not understand the amount of distribution infrastructure that will need to be enhanced.”

And he’s only talking about vehicle charging increases.

Chatterjee would like to see Connecticut do what Massachusetts did and put a state policy in place before asking the EDCs to come up with their plans. “This is what leadership looks like.”

Without policy, Eversource is just “flying blind,” he said.

He also thinks Connecticut is missing an economic development opportunity in all the new technology and should be trying to bring in businesses to build the many, many components that will be needed. And, he said, Connecticut doesn’t seem focused on the actual work of updating systems.

“It’s just focused on ‘let’s just do another study. Let’s just plan it. Let’s just figure out our roadmap.’ All of that is good. And it’s imperative that we do that. But at some point, we have to stop planning and start construction.”

And then there’s the money thing.

“I do think we need to do more grid modernization, but I’m also a little cautious when I hear utilities saying we need lots and lots of money for that,” said Yale’s Gillingham, who is primarily an economist. “We need to be a little careful there because utilities will always ask for funding. But they have a point that in the long run we are going to need to make these changes.”

But he said “every single feeder doesn’t need to be upgraded to be bi-directional in the next five years. …. This can be staggered.”

And newer technology already available means that just adding wires and poles may no longer be the best way to get the grid ready for widespread electrification.

What’s new

It’s not just the potential of gigawatts of offshore wind coming into the system or solar panels going on every available roof — it’s making sure the grid is updated technologically to use them efficiently without wasting any power, as well as finding new ways to work with groups of individual systems to essentially make them bigger than the sum of their parts.

During this week's solar eclipse, demand for grid power spiked up for a couple of hours - an indication of the role solar power had been playing, and that it was no longer available.
During this week’s solar eclipse, demand for grid power spiked up for a couple of hours – an indication of the role solar power had been playing, and that it was no longer available.

The acronym of the moment is GETS — or, grid enhancing technologies. And the technology mentioned most often is dynamic line rating. It’s a way to optimize what’s coming through transmission and distribution lines by looking at factors like temperature, wind and other local weather conditions.

Sensors and software control how much power is flowing on the lines based on ambient temperature and wind speed conditions. It’s cheap and cost effective because it essentially gets more power out of existing systems. By some estimates it increases productivity by up to 40%.

“It requires some analysis of where they make sense and where they’re going to actually be cost effective,” said McDiarmid of Advanced Energy United. “Figure out the pathway to deploying it because without a policy to do so you have this misalignment between what the utility makes money on, which is new stuff and expensive steel on the ground. And they don’t have the economic incentive to invest in the sensors that give better visibility into the existing grid.”

It’s not just one thing that will be a silver bullet for the grid.

Among the many other technologies noted are storage — which saves excess energy for use at another time. Connecticut has been moving into that arena slowly mostly with residential backup systems. But ideas out there include storage systems at substations that can release power at times of day it might be more useful. Like for charging your car overnight.

And that gets to another big technology everyone — yes everyone – brings up: Managed charging for electric vehicles. Most EVs can be programmed to charge at particular times of day. For customers and the grid as a whole, that mostly means charging overnight when grid usage is lower and rates are cheap. Allowing the utilities to control charging and the timing for it has been piloted in neighboring states and is on the horizon here.

Credit: ISO New England

ISO New England

Credit: ISO New England

But the best time for charging may be changing. As more solar is installed, there’s likely to be a glut of unused power in the middle of the day when the sun is at its strongest. California has been experiencing this for many years and Connecticut may find itself in the same situation in not too many more years.

Taking advantage of that would likely require rate adjustments and incentives from the distribution companies and their regulators. And lots more storage.

With something like a heat pump, however, time of day management doesn’t really work — if you’re cold, you’re cold and if you’re hot, you’re hot. But heat pump technology itself has become more sophisticated in how it uses energy.

“They are not the heat pumps of old that is a single speed heat pump that it’s either on or off,” said Porter of EPRI. When those heat pumps kicked on they put a big strain on the grid. “That is not today’s heat pump. The new heat pumps are variable capacity, variable speed control.”

Porter also pointed to new approaches some states such as Vermont and New York are taking with customer-owned systems like solar and storage — often referred to as behind-the-meter power. They are being used as a flexible grid resource that distribution companies can control for power or storage as needed.

“That’s one of the great avenues that the industry has going forward to make this transition easier and less stressful on consumers, as well as ensure that we keep high reliability on the grid,” Porter said. “But the location of those resources for that distribution system operator is absolutely crucial. So that’s a big part of the equation.”

Odom at RMI said the grid load paradigm will be very different from what has existed. “What we’re moving towards is a more technologically advanced future. Our loads are going to be more efficient. They’re going to be smarter. And they’re going to be much more malleable,” she said. “So there are a lot of non-infrastructure solutions that we can deploy as part of electrification that makes electrification not as big of a headache for a lot of us.”

Including one of the oldest and simplest strategies — use less power for what you have now. In other words, energy efficiency.

And don’t expect natural gas power to disappear tomorrow. Gramlich, of Grid Strategies, envisions it as backup power that won’t run very much so the emissions will be minimal. “They’ll be available when needed. And that’s a pretty good way to run a power system for reliability, efficiency and low carbon,” he said.

Staying the course

“Eight years from now, we don’t know how much offshore wind we’re going to have. We don’t know how many heat pumps and electric vehicles we’re going to have,” said Kakley of the ISO. “But we can’t wait until the end and say, ‘you know, actually, we’re in trouble now.’”

Broadly, the ISO knows where the states are headed, but the more specific the better to develop long-term forecasts.

“Connecticut does have climate change and renewable energy policies at the highest level, but that alone is not going to get the steel on the ground that gets things built,” McDiarmid said. “It’s not going to get the sort of capacity in the system that is going to accommodate the increasing demand for electricity.”

The state needs to keep taking deliberate and continued and consistent steps, he said. “I think that’s one of the challenges — that long term commitment and staying the course, which has, I think, been a challenge for Connecticut over the years.”

But after a number of legislative sessions in which policy has not been put in place, Dykes at DEEP chooses her words carefully.

“It’s not wrong to say that there’s an enormous amount of investment and careful planning and program design that is necessary and is going to be increasingly necessary as more residents and businesses use clean vehicles, choose clean heat options like heat pumps,” she said. “I think that the trajectory of adoption is still at a pace that we think that it’s manageable.”

She said she hopes ongoing discussions with legislators and other stakeholders will result in predictable targets to plan around.

“Predictability is the key to good planning,” she said. “When we have uncertainty, it makes it more difficult to do our planning and investment effectively.”

Jan Ellen Spiegel is a reporter for The Connecticut Mirror ( ). Copyright 2024 © The Connecticut Mirror.

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