The electrification of transportation, heating and other end uses necessary for the United States to meet its decarbonization goals will require the country to double its electricity load by 2050, panelists said Thursday at a Federal Energy Regulatory Commission technical conference. With that additional load will come opportunities, responsibilities and challenges, they said.
The panelists frequently acknowledged the need to consider issues of equity, affordability and environmental justice throughout the energy transition. "If we don't address those issues, what are we doing? We're not accomplishing anything," said FERC Chairman Richard Glick.
They also raised cybersecurity concerns. It will be a constant battle to secure the grid, said Carlos Casablanca, managing director of distribution planning and analysis at American Electric Power Service Corp. But he added that AEP "does not believe that these risks are brought upon by electrification efforts alone, as these risks already exist in our industry and we actively manage them."
With the United States now aiming to eliminate economywide carbon emissions within 30 years, federal regulators announced the technical conference as a chance to initiate a dialogue "on how to prepare for an increasingly electrified future."
FERC must send 'consistent market signals'
Commissioners also took the opportunity to voice some of their own concerns.
Commissioner Neil Chatterjee acknowledged that FERC is "not really in the driver's seat on electrification," but the commission has to understand how it will impact the wholesale markets it does oversee. State and federal policymakers are unleashing new electricity demand, and "we must make sure at every turn we send clear and consistent signals to the industry and investment community," he said.
"Mixed signals will delay the development at a time when we should be looking toward the grid of the future," Chatterjee said. But he added that reliability and the creation of efficiency through competition must remain FERC's focus.
Commissioner Allison Clements said she is focused on ensuring customer benefits do not get lost in the cracks between different regulatory jurisdictions. She wants regulators to consider "how we should think about costs and benefits of new investment across the systems," she said, from transmission development to utility meters.
"Our regulatory structures don't easily provide for optimization of benefits that all of those investments bring and the related savings for customers," said Clements. "Without that optimization, customers are left in less than optimal positions."
Utility loads could double by 2050
Just how much electricity load will increase between now and 2050 is uncertain, but many estimates indicate doubling is possible.
Jeff Dennis, managing director and general counsel of Advanced Energy Economy, pointed to a Brattle Group study which found that New England loads were likely to double across that time.
"Electrification will result in significant increases in electricity demand and the generation capacity needed to meet that demand," Dennis said, though "the pace of electrification and amount of energy required for building heating and other uses may vary by region."
Washington will need to "roughly double its electricity supplies," said Glenn Blackmon, manager of the Energy Policy Office in that state's Department of Commerce.
"Our hope is to draw those resources from multiple locations and energy sources across the West, capturing the advantages that different areas of our country have in producing electricity from renewable energy," Blackmon said. "This approach will not only minimize costs but also improve the reliability of our electricity portfolio."
The Electrification Futures Study, developed by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and other research partners, concluded that "meeting electrified loads requires a doubling of generation capacity in all regions by 2050," Ella Zhou, senior modeling engineer at the lab, told the FERC conference.
The study shows that electrification has the potential to change how utilities operate, Zhou said. Most utilities now see peak electricity demand in the summer, for cooling, but that could shift as more heating loads are powered by the grid. "Participation in the planning and operations of the power system is crucial," she said.
As more energy loads are shifted to electricity, it is "incredibly important" to remember that low-income groups spend a greater portion of their income on energy and have a higher "energy burden," said Rob Chapman, senior vice president of energy delivery and customer solutions at the Electric Power Research Institute.
"Obviously electrification has the opportunity from an air quality and health perspective to help support those communities," Chapman said. "The flip of that is, we have to consciously think about the affordability aspect and realize many disadvantaged communities are not going to have the capital to invest in emerging technologies."
Energy efficiency efforts can help address some the energy burden inequities, Chapman said. And environmental justice efforts must also look at the impact of transit corridors and public transit on disadvantaged communities, he said.
"As we seek to ensure that underserved communities have access to clean energy, we must be intentional and specific in identifying solutions and programs and involve communities in determining their path forward," said Katherine Hamilton, co-chair of the World Economic Forum’s Global Future Council on Clean Electrification.
Hamilton said the solution to "transition these communities that have been harmed by fossil fuels" includes reducing barriers to entry for energy technologies and markets. That could mean making resource interconnections cheaper, allowing aggregation of resources and co-optimization of efficiency efforts, such as installing heat pumps at the same time other upgrades are made.
All of these efforts include "making sure we lower the barriers to entry and make sure cost-effective, cheaper and more resilient solutions are available to customers who normally couldn't afford them," Hamilton said.
The electrification of demand and the growing interconnectedness of the grid has created new opportunities for disruption by hackers, the panelists acknowledged. But the industry remains confident this is a risk it can manage.
"As more electric systems 'go digital' or some non-electric products become electric, it is expected that the internet of things will only continue to grow, increasing the potential number of points for cyber intrusion," Casablanca said. "Continued cyber security technology development, collaboration, education and investment across all sectors of industry will be required to continuously mitigate this known risk."
But Casablanca also said the industry is already managing the risk daily, so electrification does not change the fundamental issue.
The industry must address cyber risks in a proactive and forward-looking way, said Chapman, because bad actors are only getting more sophisticated.
"I would suggest right now we have very good efforts underway, in terms of managing cybersecurity, but of course the bad actors always seem to be one step ahead of where we are going as an industry," Chapman said. "That risk only increases, from a resiliency and reliability perspective, as we drive more of our consumers to use electricity as an end use fuel of choice."