May 25, 2024

We take for granted the endless flow of electrons that make modern life possible, just as we take for granted the air we breathe. Still, an outage can occur at almost any time, usually when too much demand is placed on a section of the circuit that distributes energy in a neighborhood. As misfortune would have it, the rush to electrify the cars we’ve come to rely on increases the risk of overloads and outages in the coming years if utilities can’t keep up.

Nowhere is the need for strengthen the grid as pronounced as it is in California. A new study reveals this, as the state pursues its audacious goal of ensuring this every new vehicle sold from 2035 on plugs into an exhaustwill have to Golden State energy providers perform extensive upgrades to the circuits that transport energy around cities. By 2045, California’s three major utilities will need to expand their combined distribution capacity by 25 gigawatts. The researchers found that these upgrades could cost $6 billion to $20 billion for the transformers and other hardware alone. Despite the cost, it is likely to benefit, not burden, everyone who uses electricity.

“According to our study, there will actually be a decrease in electricity price,” said Yanning Li, a doctoral student with a focus on energy systems at the University of California, Davis and the study’s lead author.

Li and her co-author found that the increase in energy use — and the revenue that would generate — would exceed the cost of the upgrades and ultimately reduce rates by up to 6 cents per kilowatt hour. Energy in California currently costs on average just over 31 cents per kilowatt hour. Yet, in a report with findings consistent with Li’s study, pointed out the California Public Utilities Commission that, depending on how much utilities spend on things like renewable energy and transmission capacity, the price customers pay may stay the same or even inch upwards. Li also acknowledged that many factors can complicate how energy prices change for customers, including energy efficiency programs and rooftop solar.

A shortage of new transformers that the industry even before the pandemic shook the entire supply chain further complicating the price picture. Because of these challenges, “you can see utility lead times go up from an order of months to a year or two plus, and prices go up by a factor of five or more,” said Killian McKenna, a researcher at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory specializing in the distribution network. If transformer costs continue to rise than EV adoption pushes more utilities to consider upgrading their grids, then the overall expense will grow as well — something Li notes in her study.

The companies that make these transformers – which must be tailored to the unique needs of a specific application – face a challenging task of tempering the cost curve. The industry drove the Congress invested in the manufacture of domestic transformers and ensure that new federal rules help the industry overcoming supply chain obstacles.

In the face of long waits and high prices, options exist that can ease the pace and scale of upgrades needed to manage increasing loads, said Kristin Eberhard, the senior policy director at Rewiring America, a nonprofit focused on electrification. is focused, said.

One option is to provide customers with incentives to shift the time or location of charging in a way that reduces peak demand — something Li discusses in her study. This could mean that a driver chooses to charge at work instead of at home, or it could mean that, if a utility raises or lowers its energy prices depending on real-time supply and demand data, EV owners can program to charge when the rate drops below a prescribed level.

Utilities can also leverage big data. About a decade ago, in preparation for the electric vehicle boom, Burbank Water and Power, a Los Angeles-area utility, developed a smart grid which allowed it to monitor its equipment with a high level of accuracy and precision, detect potential outages before they occur, and identify other sources of inefficiency and vulnerability. Noting that some transformers saw significantly less demand than they were designed for, while other transformers were stressed to their limits, the utility systematically shuffled components to right-size its distribution system, making it one of the most reliable in the country. While not a permanent solution, such a project can certainly buy time for the supply chain to catch up with demand.

Of course, while rapid growth in EV adoption across California and the 14 states that adopted its EV mandate creates a new and growing source of energy demand, these plug-in vehicles are by no means the only reason distribution networks need to be upgraded, and so the California Public Utilities Commission expects current distribution maintenance plans to be able to keep up with the growth in demand for EV charging. Utilities must perform line maintenance because America’s energy infrastructure is aging. And in some places power lines need to be buried to make them more resilient and reduce the risk of wildfires. But these simultaneous dilemmas present an opportunity.

“You can imagine if you have old infrastructure that needs to be put underground and modernized at the same time you’re expanding the network, there’s a lot of opportunity for cost savings there,” McKenna said. “And that’s the big opportunity that I think people should be looking at.”

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