You may have missed it, but there is a pervasive movement afoot to electrify everything: cars, trucks, buses, homes, offices, stoves, and appliances. It may sound easy, but it is a massive undertaking rife with challenges. Policies seeking to simultaneously electrify our transportation system, our homes, and commercial buildings will require an upfront investment of billions of dollars in preparing and expanding the power grid to accommodate this increased demand for electricity. That is just for starters.
When policymakers discuss this issue, they focus on the perceived benefits of decarbonization but consistently gloss over the process and associated challenges. When they consider mandatory electrification, among the questions they leave unanswered are: How much power is going to be needed to preserve reliability? Where is that power coming from? How is the power going to get where it needs to go? And how much is this all going to cost?
Let’s start with the question about the amount of power needed. According to the 2023–2032 Forecast Report of Capacity, Energy, Loads, and Transmission (CELT Report) – the region’s demand for electrical power is projected to increase by a quarter over the next decade – and that prediction might be understated.
ISO New England, the regional power transmission organization, and major electric utilities within the region are in general agreement when they predict that our power grid will have to meet a doubling of average demand for electricity and a tripling of winter peak demand by 2050.
Given the increase in demand, the critical challenge here in New England is updating and expanding our electrical grid. Let’s put the magnitude of the challenge into perspective.
In its grid modernization plan National Grid recently identified the need for investments of more than $2 billion, including “the upgrade and expansion of 10 existing substations, and building of three new substations over the next five years, and 18 existing and 28 new substations by 2034.”
Eversource’s plan calls for investing $4.5 billion on electric operations and $1 billion on clean energy enablement over the first five years and a total more than $12 billion for a 10-year investment plan.
By 2032, heating electrification alone is expected to account for 7,334 gigawatt hours (GWh) of demand, signifying a substantial increase in power consumption to keep our homes and businesses warm during the colder months.
Now we need to layer on the demand the transportation sector will generate, as it is undergoing a transformative shift towards electrification as well. Electric vehicles are projected to account for a whopping 13,961 GWh of grid demand in 2032. If the adoption of electric vehicles is going to continue to accelerate, there will be significant added load to ensure uninterrupted mobility for New Englanders. There is also the challenge of developing a charging infrastructure that can support a lot more electric cars on the road.
As we plan for such dramatic increases in demand for electricity in the future, we need to be realistic about how contentious, time consuming, and expensive the permitting and siting process is for energy-related facilities such as power plants, and transmission lines. Take for example the proposed construction of a 145-mile transmission line in remote Maine intended to deliver hydropower from Canada to Massachusetts. The developer of the proposal took years getting regulatory approval only to see the project become the subject of protracted legal battles (including a case that went to the state supreme court) and a ballot question. The ballot question, the most expensive in the state to date, saw $100 million raised by supporters and opponents.
Before asking constituents to dismantle gas stations, turn off natural gas-fired power plants, stop cooking with gas and propane, abandon a newly updated gas or oil furnace, or turn over their beloved car, policymakers need to be realistic about the timeframes associated with electrification.
None of this is to say that our goals cannot be reached. But we should be having an honest conversation at a policy level about the costs and challenges involved. A pragmatic approach that looks to reduce emissions as quickly as possible through advancements in technology while using existing infrastructure is important and lawmakers should not close the door to this possibility. Frankly, it is the only way it is going to work. Simply wishing for immediate electrification does not make it so – and charging ahead with electrification mandates without knowing all the answers is a bad idea.
Michael S. Giaimo is the director of the northeast region of the American Petroleum Institute.