Energy Efficiency

The next era in electricity use

I couldn't have electricity in the house. I couldn't sleep a wink. All those vapors seeping about, exclaimed Dowager Countess Lady Violet Grantham, the grande dame of Downton Abbey. Imagine her horror if she were to see cars plugged into houses and electric heat in place of those well-tended fires in every room!

Lady Grantham's apprehension is the underlying theme of the story of electricity use through the ages. While it may have seemed magical — or precisely because it seemed magical — people did not immediately embrace the use of electricity until they discovered its convenience.

We saw the evolution even in Downton Abbey — the subtle adaptation to technology to make life easier. The maid Daisy, who's terrified to turn on the lights, soon becomes a savvy user of the electric mixer, much to Mrs. Patmore's chagrin. And Mrs. Patmore, like the rest of the servants, eyes the electric sewing machine of the new maid Mrs. Baxter with suspicion, but she resorts to using it when she needs to quickly fix her hem. Mini disasters occur with toasters and curling irons before they are accepted for the wonders they can work.

Today, we continue to see the adoption of technology in the face of initial apprehension, if not resistance. This is true of every sphere of life — smartphones, ride-sharing, digital assistants — but especially of energy use.

Electricity demand for traditional uses is flattening, if not declining, as people use more efficient lights and appliances, control energy use through their smartphones, build more energy efficient houses, and generate some of their own power through rooftop solar. The U.S. Energy Information Administration projects that between 2016 and 2040, electricity demand will grow only by an average annual rate of 0.6 percent — as compared with an average of 1.3 percent over the past 25 years. While other factors, such as economic growth, impact the demand for power, it seems safe to say that power demand from traditional uses will decline over the longer term.

However, we are racing into a future in which electrification is being redefined. People are driving cars without gasoline and controlling their home appliances remotely — simply because they can. And this is because technology, partnered with electricity, makes it possible.

Reliability and cost are still barriers keeping many from adopting new technologies, but those factors will improve. The price of electric vehicles will continue to fall, and more charging stations (with reduced charge times) are being installed. Even in my house, it seems that we plug in more to charge our phones and laptops than to run our TVs and vacuums. The 220-volt EV charger next to my driveway makes up a substantial portion of our household consumption.

A Brattle Group paper lays out a scenario in which a steady conversion of transportation vehicles and residential and commercial heating devices toward electric-powered alternatives could lead, by 2050, to a 105 percent growth in electricity demand from 2015 levels.

Of course, this is only one forecast of the future, and a healthy dose of skepticism is warranted. But the good news is that it does not have to be a future of doom and gloom.

Utilities have tremendous potential to survive and thrive, and new load can come in a number of flavors. But that does not mean it can be business as usual, especially for all of us in public power. We have to prepare to meet the demands of new electrification, evolving customer preferences, and new technologies.

For example, as Bill Bottiggi from Braintree Electric Light Department, points out in Future Technologies on page 26, if every person charges their electric vehicle as soon as they come home from work, it could really strain the grid. So Braintree is incentivizing customers to program their cars to charge at night to mitigate an increase in peak loads and keep capacity costs low.

Another dimension of electrification is how it will impact the role of utilities in their communities. In testimony presented at a House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Energy hearing in February 2017, Michael Howard, president and CEO of the Electric Power Research Institute, said that in the future, services traditionally provided by diverse and disconnected systems — such as heating, lighting, transportation and industrial automation — should be provided through a more integrated system. Electrification is key to doing this.

The American Public Power Association has provided a road map and a 10-step action plan for your transition to the future under our Public Power Forward strategic initiative (read more on page 30). We are here to help. But ultimately you must decide which road to take and what's best for your community.