In a survey taken this past Earth Day, Researchers at the Pew Research Center found that a majority of people in 23 out of 26 countries surveyed by the Pew Research Center consider climate change a grave threat. With this week marking the start of the 25th United Nations Climate Change Conference in Madrid, Spain, the role electric utilities play in the fight against the effects of climate change deserves a review.
Today, electricity generation is responsible for some 28% of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, but electric utilities are stepping up efforts to reduce that number. Asked how their utilities’ power mix would change over the next 10 years, 93% of respondents to Utility Dive’s 2019 State of the Electric Utility survey said utility-scale solar would increase. 78% said the same about wind power, while 79% saw more hydro coming online for their firms. Coal? 86% saw it decreasing in their power mix.
Generation mix is just one of the ways utilities can help protect our planet, however. Advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) is another tool that may help us chase away the specter of global doom.
One of the chief climate-saving initiatives AMI can support is electrification of things that are now often run with fossil-based fuel. We’re talking about motor vehicles and furnaces. Once we clean up our generation resources with non-polluting solar, wind and hydro power, the offset to GHG emissions could be significant. In fact, researchers at The Brattle Group, an energy-focused policy and economics consultancy, maintain that we must electrify heating and transportation sectors if we want to keep greenhouse gas emissions under control.
The group came to this conclusion after examining research conducted at the National Renewable Energy Lab. There, scientists concluded that the technical potential for rooftop solar photovoltaics in the U.S. is some 1,400 terawatt-hours (TWh) of annual energy generation, which would equal nearly 40% of the nation’s annual electricity consumption.
Brattle Group believes that reaching such a penetration level “unlikely.” Even if it was achieved, they maintain it wouldn’t be enough to reach the GHG emissions reductions the U.S. had when it was part of the Paris Agreement, when we were targeting 80% fewer emissions than we had in 1990, and we had to reach the goal by 2050.
“To achieve 80% reductions relative to 1990 emissions, further reductions have to come from the nonelectric sectors,” Brattle Group researchers wrote in a recent report titled, Electrification: Emerging Opportunities for Utility Growth.
According to this piece of Brattle Group analysis, full electrification of the heating and transport sectors would need to be coupled with 100% decarbonization of the power sector to come close to that 80% decarbonization goal. This achievement would also double utility sales revenue between 2015 and 2050, thereby slaying another scary thing for electric utilities: the so-called death spiral caused by declining sales and increasing investment needs for the grid.
What you don’t see can hurt you
So, here are two areas where electric meters fit in the climate-change fight.
1. They can verify that people who sign-up for off-peak charging rates to energize their electric vehicles (EVs) are really charging off-peak.
2. Smart meters also can help utilities see actual loading on transformers. When utilities have only a monthly read, they can tell how much power moved through the transformer in 30 days or so, but not whether it moved through the transformer at an even rate of flow throughout that month or if it spiked from time to time, perhaps even coming close to the transformer’s nameplate capacity.
“AMI will be instrumental in understanding the impact of customer-owned resources, such as rooftop solar systems,” said the DOE’s report titled Voice of Experience: Leveraging AMI Networks and Data. “With growing penetrations of these resources, knowing system voltages at the premises-level is critical.”
Having such insight will help us mitigate the voltage swings variable generation from renewables can bring. That means it will help us integrate more non-polluting generation resources.
Knowing the loading on transformers will be vital once EVs start to take off. Customers generally don’t tell utilities when they buy an EV, so the increased load that will come from that vehicle won’t make it into any planning forecasts.
But a DOE analysis placed typical charging load as drawing around 7,200 watts. For comparison, the same DOE analysis put a typical electric furnace at 10,000 watts and an air conditioner at less than 4,000. Given that many 25-kVA transformers in the U.S. serve fewer than a dozen homes, several EVs charging simultaneously could present problems.
After recognizing that EV adoption tends to occur in specific areas, the Sacramental Municipal Utility District estimated that it would need to upgrade up to 17 percent of their transformers due to increased EV adoption. Analysis of AMI data can alert a utility when a load large enough to be EV charging comes online. That allows utilities to proactively address any transformer right-sizing that needs to take place.
So, although climate change is a serious concern, it’s nice to know utilities already have some powerful tools to help our communities fight it.
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