The Grid, the Load, Transmission and Timing: Taking (Great) Questions from our Members
By Rebecca Towne, VEC Chief Executive Officer
Here at VEC, we use the term “Energy Transformation” in a couple of ways. Primarily, we use the phrase to refer to our incentive program to help members transition to electric cars, appliances, and other equipment. But it also describes a far larger concept that’s underway across Vermont, the nation and many parts of the globe – namely the shift of our energy demands increasingly toward cleaner and cheaper electricity.
This transition raises important questions for our region and our members are not afraid to put these questions to us. While we don’t have all the answers, every day we plan, innovate and invest making us optimistic about the opportunity of energy transformation.
So – here are some of your questions – and some answers.
Our energy needs are expected to be increasingly served by electricity. Will the grid be able to handle this additional load?
We expect that VEC’s total load will grow by around 40 percent over the next 20 years. While today’s grid has some extra capacity, it doesn’t have nearly enough to support all that future load. To address the gap, we’re focusing on three broad categories of improvements:
Physical infrastructure. Poles, wires, and substations represent the core of our system at VEC. Some of this infrastructure is brand new, and some of it is decades old. Every year we rebuild some of our older or less reliable lines. Sometimes we move them to the roadside, bury them underground, or add phases. Sometimes we simply make the system more rugged by replacing what’s there with taller poles and thicker wire. We continually upgrade our substations. We will continue all of this work in the coming years but at a necessarily faster pace to keep up with growing demand.
Technology. Advances in technology allow us to make much more efficient use of the physical infrastructure. This will help us boost reliability and better handle load. For example, during outages we can now reroute circuits between substations and dispatch crews more efficiently and effectively. We can better handle increased demand on the system because we can now communicate with electric vehicle chargers and home batteries. As we move into the future, we will embrace even more automation, control of power flows, and energy storage.
Generation & Transmission. VEC is part of a New England-wide electrical system, and we buy power from generators in Vermont and out-of-state. As we de- carbonize and grow load, we will need more and larger transmission lines to move that power to the load centers. As offshore wind becomes part of New England’s portfolio, replacing lots of natural gas, there is a lot of construction and some energy cost involved to support all that infrastructure. As part of the Vermont and New England transmission system, VEC pays a small share of that overall cost, which is reflected in our rates. VEC is actively involved in a number of committees with VELCO (Vermont’s state-wide transmission utility) and other distribution utilities to develop solutions to bring this clean energy to VEC.
Who is going to pay for all of these improvements?
Some of this funding will come from federal or state dollars, and some will come through members’ increased use of electricity.
Recently-passed federal bills including the Inflation Reduction Act and Infra- structure Investment and Jobs Act provide opportunities for funding on resilient infrastructure and storage and technology, and VEC is aggressively pursuing funding. We will continue to apply for, when circumstances permit, Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) dollars after severe storms. We have a very good track record of procuring these funds, which not only help us repair infrastructure but also rebuild it so it’s more resilient. Finally, as we all use more electricity, we will share the cost of upgrading our systems through rates. It’s important to re- member, however that using more electricity generally means using less oil, gas, propane or other fuels.
The long outages over the Christmas holidays in 2022 from Winter Storm Elliott were very tough. And that's just one example. With all this increasing electrification, how will VEC improve reliability?
We are improving reliability all the time, although these improvements take time and are not always visible. We are making progress and know that our members expect fewer and shorter outages, and also options to support heating and transportation as they move to electrify.
One example: a few lines greatly affected by storms in 2017, 2018, and 2019 that were rebuilt over the past several years using FEMA funding did not experience outages in Winter Storm Elliott. VEC continues to use those FEMA funds, to the tune of $5 million so far, to continue improving reliability across the system. Because Winter Storm Elliott was recently declared a FEMA event, VEC will be pursuing additional funding for more reliability projects.
You encourage technologies like electric vehicles and heat pumps, then ask members to conserve energy at certain times. Which is it? Do you want us to use more or less electricity?
We believe many members will be better served – through lower, more stable costs as well as added convenience and comfort – over the long term by expanding their use of electric technologies. That said, in order for VEC to deliver those benefits we sometimes ask for some flexibility from our members. A handful of times a year we ask members who want to help out, to curtail their use for a few evening hours if they can safely do so. For example, we ask members who happen to have electric vehicles to program them to charge at off peak hours. Or delay doing laundry until later in the evening. Or tweak the air conditioner so it’s not running as cold. These temporary, occasional requests for voluntary action help keep the big benefits of electrification cost-effective for all co-op members.
So, it’s both. We hope our members will recognize the overarching value of electrification but recognize that timing its use can be helpful in keeping costs down, too.
You say VEC is 100 percent carbon-free. But you also say that the price of natural gas – a carbon-emitting fuel – is driving up the cost of power. How can both be true?
First, VEC’s power supply is carbon free on an annual basis. That means that on cold winter days when there is not enough renewable power available, we do draw on natural gas. There are also times, often during the summer months, when there is more renewable energy available than we need, so we use that “credit” to offset the times we’ve used gas.
Second, because some of our carbon-free power purchase contracts are pegged to the price of natural gas, prices go up for that power when natural gas prices go up – even though the power source is carbon-free.
The bottom line is that we are incredibly proud that VEC has taken this step to reduce our carbon footprint. And we look forward to delivering our next pledge: to be 100 percent renewable on an annual basis by 2030.
VEC has an excellent, experienced staff who work on these challenges every day. We certainly have our work cut out for us, but please know we are as committed to our mission today as we have been for the last 85+ years – serving our members safe, affordable, reliable energy services.