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Massachusetts utilities outline plans to handle more electricity



By Colin A. Young

SEPT. 5, 2023…..Massachusetts is aiming to achieve net-zero emission by 2050 largely by electrifying things currently powered by fossil fuels. While the region’s electrical grid is not ready to serve that heightened demand, the Bay State’s utility companies late last week rolled out their plans to upgrade the grid so it doesn’t impede the state’s clean energy transition.

The scale of the challenge is massive. National Grid said its plan looks ahead to how it will meet peak customer demand more than twice as high as it is today and “connect at least twice the amount of energy storage, 10 times the amount of renewable energy, 75 times the number of EVs, and 100 times the number of heat pumps than we see today.”

Massachusetts’ 2022 climate law required the three utility companies — National Grid, Eversource and Unitil — to detail their plans for modernizing the grid to accommodate the significant shift from fossil fuels to electricity generated by cleaner sources that the state is counting on. Those plans, known as Electric Sector Modernization Plans (ESMPs), were filed with the state Friday afternoon. There will be public input sessions this fall as the Grid Modernization Advisory Council reviews the plans until Nov. 20, and final versions are to be submitted for Department of Public Utilities approval in January.

“The Future Grid plan begins to define the scope and scale of what we collectively must do over the coming years and decades to combat climate change and enable a more electrified future, and the policy and regulatory changes needed to make it happen,” Nicola Medalova, chief operating officer of National Grid New England, said. “This is a holistic plan that identifies the system investments and changes needed in the local electric distribution grid, its operations, and how it must perform to benefit all.”

At the foundation of each plan is a forecast of electric demand through the middle of this century.

National Grid, for example, expects the region’s peak electricity demand to more than double by 2050, starting out gradually over the next decade and accelerating in the 2030s as more heating systems and cars are projected to run on electricity. Last year’s peak demand was about 4.7 gigawatts during the summer for National Grid, but 2050’s peak demand is projected to be around 10.7 GW in the wintertime, the company said.

Eversource said its system engineers predict that electric demand will increase approximately 20 percent in the next decade, “driven primarily by imminent economic growth,” and then will increase by 150 percent by 2050, “driven by electrification of heating systems (50%) and transportation (25%), as well as normal load growth (25%).” The company said its base forecast shows its overall system electric demand increasing from a 6.1 GW summer evening peak to a 15.3 GW winter morning peak by 2050.

Accommodating that larger appetite for electricity will require the distribution companies to build more physical infrastructure, literally expanding the footprint of the grid.

At National Grid, the five-year plan calls for an investment of more than $2 billion, including “the upgrade and expansion of 10 existing substations, and building of 3 new substations over the next 5 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 $12.1 billion 10-year investment plan.

Melissa Lavinson, head of New England corporate affairs at National Grid, said the initial five-year investment plan would impact customer bills by an annual average of about 2 percent.

“At the end of the day, what all that enables for customers is … about an additional 4 GW of capacity on our system, so enough to add more distributed energy as well as hit the milestones of about a million more personal passenger vehicles, enough to support another like 700,000-plus heat pumps,” she said.

Lavinson also highlighted policies National Grid thinks will need to be in place to enable utility companies to modernize the grid in a way that matches customer demand and the pace of the transition to electric heating and electric vehicles. Chief among the issues Lavinson mentioned was permitting reform.

There is general agreement among utility companies, environmental activists and others that the energy project permitting and siting process as it exists today is a poor model. It often takes a long time to get a project through the process, it can be overly complicated for members of the public to follow proceedings, and it does not always incorporate feedback from impacted communities.

“We understand as companies that we have to be more transparent, more inclusive, on the front end and have that front-end engagement. And at the same time, we need the process to be much more predictable and timely, and have concurrent kind of reviews, and standardized reviews,” Lavinson said. She added, “So really being clear about what the expectation is of us as the applicant, of what the regulator wants to see, and then if we deliver on that, for them to be able to review it in a much quicker timeframe, more predictable timeframe. So that’s a big thing that really needs to be discussed.”

National Grid and Eversource support a bill (H 3215) filed by Rep. Jeff Roy, the House co-chair of the Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy Committee, to create a new office within the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs with the authority to consolidate various permitting processes related to utility decarbonization infrastructure projects into one process. That committee is also reviewing a bill addressing Energy Facilities Siting Board reform (H 3187) and environmental justice communities filed by Rep. Adrian Madaro of East Boston and Sen. Sal DiDomenico of Everett.

Eversource Vice President for System Planning Digaunto Chatterjee said the utility was excited to unveil its plan “to realistically transition to the clean energy future we all desire” and suggested that a smooth siting and regulatory process is key to success.

“Achieving this will take a collective effort from our customers, stakeholders and regulatory agencies as we undertake the important work of siting and building critical clean energy infrastructure — like new substations — to meet growing demand for electricity and allow for the integration of more distributed energy resources like solar,” he said.

Eversource said its proposed investments over the next decade would increase grid capacity by 180 percent, enabling 2.2 GW of solar and the adoption of 2.5 million electric vehicles and 1 million heat pumps across its service territory, and “enabling full electrification for customers who choose to adopt electric vehicles or heat pumps in Eversource’s Metro-Boston and Western Mass regions, while also providing significant opportunities for customers in the company’s MetroWest and South regions to choose electrification.”

National Grid said that its investments are projected to spur incremental economic activity of $1.4 billion and generate 11,000 full- and part-time jobs by 2030, free up an additional 4 GW of capacity by 2035, upgrade hundreds of feeders to enable the connection of more clean distributed energy resources, and improve air quality as more cars, buses and trucks are electrified. The utility also said the investments will make the grid more reliable, resilient and responsive to customer needs.

The greater electric demand will take hold as more and more crucial aspects of daily life are converted to run on electricity. That means that customers will rely even more on the power being there when they need it, putting even greater emphasis on reliability of the grid.

“That’s part of what we’re doing, is saying … ‘How do we make sure customers can experience either the same or better levels of reliability than they have today?’ particularly as more and more of their lives depend on electricity,” Lavinson said. “So if you don’t have another fueling source, that electric grid has to be there 24/7/365 and if it’s not, you’ve got to get it back on as quick as possible.”

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