Electric Vehicles
Smart Grid

Panel: Grid must be updated to support electrification

The U.S. is poised to use significantly more electricity – in transportation, manufacturing, and buildings – in the coming decades, and significant investments in infrastructure will be necessary to support this electrification, said a panel of industry, regulatory, and policy leaders on July 25 at an event in Washington, D.C.

The panel included Senator Angus King, I-Maine, New York Power Authority President and CEO Gil Quiniones, and representatives from the Department of Energy, the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission, and the Electric Drive Transportation Association.

The event, Reinventing American Energy: The Electrification Revolution, is part of a series of panels hosted by Politico. Association president and CEO Sue Kelly participated in the first event in the series, which focused on the need to modernize infrastructure

In an introduction to the panel, Amy Farrell, senior vice president of government and public affairs at the American Wind Energy Association, cited the Electric Power Research Institute’s National Electrification Assessment, which forecast that load could grow as much as 50% by 2050 with increased electrification. However, Farrell countered with the fact that the American Society of Civil Engineers graded the U.S.’ electric infrastructure poorly in its latest infrastructure report card. The group gave the D+ grade due to aging assets, capacity concerns, and increased impacts from storms and other climate issues.

Motivation, research needed

The panelists generally agreed that the technology for more electrified end uses is reaching the point where mass market adoption is possible. King’s opening comment that the U.S. must “innovate and motivate” toward electrification spurred a discussion on what forms that motivation should take – from a regulatory environment that allows for new technologies to thrive to revenue potential that encourages corporations to invest in these technologies.

Representing the utility perspective, NYPA’s Quiniones said, “There is really no choice. If we want to put our nation, our world on the right trajectory, we have to electrify transportation. Other sectors of the economy must electrify as well.”

He said that research and development is critical for the industry to develop technology now that can be ready to deploy in 2030 to meet many of the goals and renewable targets cities and states have set. In the meantime, he said that utilities should “double down” on energy efficiency and focus on updating infrastructure. “If electrification is going to happen, the grid has to modernize. We have to make it more intelligent. The one-way flow is going away,” he added.

King also said that electric utilities should view themselves as “energy consultants” in the future, since “the day of the passive consumer is rapidly going away.” King stressed that it will be important for the U.S. to set goals related to electrification, and specifically cited CAFE standards and renewable portfolio standards as examples.

“Research is critical,” stated King. “People don’t lose if they innovate and change what they are doing. If you don’t innovate, then you are going to lose.”

“The two big pieces that are going to enable states to reach their goal are storage and carbon capture… Once we get 100 hours storage capacity, then we are in a total renewable world,” noted King.

Conner Prochaska, chief commercialization officer and director of the Office of Technology and Transitions at the Department of Energy, emphasized that the DOE is making an effort to stay connected with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to update the agency on new technologies and its implications on policy. “It is going to be a shame if we create a technology but the regulators don’t know it is coming,” he said. “[We] need to bridge those gaps at the federal level so they are aware before it hits the street.”

Opposition to EVs is ‘shortsighted’

Genevieve Cullen, president of the Electric Drive Transportation Association, noted how the electric vehicle market has already picked up considerably. She mentioned that more than 1.3 million EVs have already sold in the U.S., and that consumers can now choose from more than 50 models.

“Opposition [to EVs] is a short-sighted approach,” she said, and mentioned that oil and gas companies are moving into the charging business or looking at other revenue streams related to electrified transport.

Quiniones mentioned that NYPA is installing fast chargers every 50-70 miles throughout New York, and that the utility got additional statutory authority to be able to build chargers on both public and private locations.

King said he supported increasing the limits for EV tax credits and said that the incentives will continue to be important. He also expressed support for including transportation electrification incentives as part of an infrastructure bill, which he expects to proceed to markup in September. “Even the fossil fuel state senators, we’re having hearings on climate change, on storage, on energy efficiency. I’m optimistic.”

Gladys Brown Dutrieuille, chairman of the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission, remarked how consumers who can’t afford an EV will “want to know why they are paying for this.” Pennsylvania is seeing significant expansion of suburban areas, which Brown Dutrieuille said means regulations regarding the resale of electricity need to change, to allow customers in these areas to benefit from installing charging infrastructure.

Cullen stressed that tax credits for EVs aren’t just an incentive for customers, but also reinforce manufacturing investment and jobs. “Our choice with policy is if we want to continue to lead in this market or cede it to other countries,” said Cullen.

Rethinking capacity, load management

King likened the current capacity of the electric grid to “a church built for Christmas morning.” He posited that customers could “use a lot more at night without adding a single wire,” which he said could be achieved through greater use of time of use pricing.

“It is critical we increase the capacity of the grid,” said Quiniones, who also remarked that increased electrification paired with increased use of renewable sources and pricing signals could shift load to the point where a utility’s peak occurs in the winter instead of the summer.

EDTA’s Cullen said that the U.S. could electrify three quarters of transportation without adding capacity, as long as demand could be better managed.

3 million threats a day

The panelists also touched on the importance of cybersecurity in an increasingly electrified society, as the electric grid is dependent on computers and control systems that can be vulnerable to attack.

King noted that a major electric utility told him that its system sees three million attempted attacks per day, a statistic which Quiniones said was similar to what NYPA faces.

This is a fact of our day to day life. There are three million attempts to enter our doors every day,” said Quiniones, who noted that NYPA is investing “a lot” in cybersecurity measures to monitor and manage these threats. 

King mentioned a proposal to put analog switches in places throughout the grid to prevent major outages in the case of a hack on the system. He remarked that electrification should be accompanied by significant change to the model of how electricity is generated and distributed, stating, We’re changing the model, which is 100 years old. Part of this change is the decentralization of energy… [so that attackers] can’t knock out one central place.”

Prochaska mentioned that amid an environment with more automation and electrified things on the grid, the DOE’s Office of Cybersecurity, Energy Security, and Emergency Response is working with industry partners in an effort to keep these assets safe.