hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


News & Issues September 2023


Region’s power grids face new stresses

Shift to clean energy means more demand, changing supplies



Many experts say the current power grids in New York and New England are inadequate to support the region’s planned shift away from fossil fuels. But for now it’s hard to predict exactly where additional capacity will be needed. Joan K. Lentini photo


Contributing writer


In the race to ensure a reliable electricity supply as the region evolves to a zero-emissions grid, the approach of a slow and steady tortoise may not be sufficient.

Demand for electricity will increase significantly in the years ahead as gas and oil heating and hot water systems, gas stoves, and gasoline vehicles are replaced with electric versions. At the same time, the electrical grids in both New York and New England are shifting away from generating facilities that burn fossil fuels and instead relying more on renewable energy sources.
The prospect of rapid changes in both demand and supply has raised questions about whether the electrical grids in the Northeast and elsewhere will be up to the task of meeting the power needs of the future.

New York reached a critical crossroads this year as the retirement of fossil-fuel-based energy resources began outpacing the development of new renewable resources, according to the New York Independent System Operator, which manages the state’s power grid.

“The effect is that reliability margins will thin to concerning levels beginning in 2025, highlighting the need for a careful transition that maintains grid reliability and resilience,” the NYISO said in its recent annual report.

Andrew Gregory, a spokesman for NYISO, emphasized that the grid currently has sufficient energy to meet demand.

“New York’s public policies are increasingly prioritizing clean energy production and a rapid transition away from fossil fuels,” Gregory said in a written statement. “As articulated in our annual Power Trends report, it is imperative that during this time of rapid change, we maintain adequate supply necessary to meet the growing demand for electricity. Currently, there is adequate supply to meet demand on the grid. Maintaining this balance will be the central challenge to the industry and New York state in the coming years.”

The situation is similar in Vermont. In its most recent three-year analysis, conducted in 2021, Vermont Electric Power Co. forecast that there will be a need for increased supply over the next 20 years, said Shana Louiselle, a spokeswoman for the electric transmission company commonly known as VELCO.

“If we do nothing and just continue the status quo, we will run into some issues,” she said.
Vermont may be a bit ahead of the curve, though, as more than 50,000 homeowners have already converted to electric heat pump systems, and about 9,000 Vermont drivers now own electric vehicles, which adds up to more per capita than in many other states, said Steph Crocker-Ross, a data scientist with EnergyHub, a Brooklyn-based company with a Burlington satellite office. EnergyHub develops “virtual power plant” software systems that utilities use to monitor and adjust to demand. The company’s clients include National Grid.


Building a better grid
Various projects are under way in both New York and New England to fortify grid infrastructure in anticipation of stepped-up demand over the next decade.

In New York, for example, New York Transco of Schodack announced the completion in mid-August, six months ahead of schedule, of the New York Energy Solutions project. The company refurbished 55 miles of nearly century-old transmission lines in Rensselaer, Columbia and Dutchess counties to transmit “clean energy.”

“The NYES project plays a critical role in bolstering the reliability of the electric grid while helping New York state meet the nation-leading climate energy goals,” the company said in a news release.

In Vermont, “there’s a lot of planning going on to ensure grid resiliency,” said Crocker-Ross, who previously was a grid power strategist for Green Mountain Power.

Many experts say it’s clear the current grid is inadequate to support the long-range evolution away from fossil fuels.

“The grid, in general, it’s positively challenged,” said Karen Kellogg, chairwoman of the Environmental Studies and Sciences Department at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs.
But for now, it’s difficult to say just how much additional capacity will be needed, and in what geographic areas it is lacking.

“It’s difficult because we really don’t have what the new demand is,” said Patrick Stella, a spokesman for National Grid, which serves much of upstate eastern New York with electricity and natural gas.

Stella said National Grid is in the early stages of working with state officials to plan expansion of the grid. Part of that planning will involve evaluating the capacity of existing transmission lines to handle increased electrical loads.

“We’re also looking at usage to learn the gas systems that we do have” — and to what extent they will no longer be utilized, Stella said.

Experts on both sides of the New York-New England border agreed that it’s too soon to put a price tag on necessary improvements to the electrical grids in each region.
“That’s probably one of the biggest question marks at this time,” Stella said.

“Do we have the answer in our pocket right now? I would say that the plan is being formulated,” said Louiselle, the VELCO spokeswoman.

Kellogg, the Skidmore professor, said government and industry officials can’t wait to have all of the answers before starting to plan. Doing nothing is not an option, she explained.

“This is the direction we need to go,” Kellogg said. “We cannot continue to have 80 percent of our grid use be from fossil fuels. It’s not to say that there won’t be some hurdles to our system along the way.”

As of last year, only 10 percent of homes in New York had electric heat, according to NYISO. But the large-scale conversion to electric heat-pump technology is expected to change the traditional peak demand period for electricity from summer to winter.

Now, peak usage is typically about 6 p.m. on an August night when people are home from work and running air conditioners, said Kellogg, the Skidmore professor.

Vermont already is seeing the beginnings of a shift to peak usage in winter months, said Louiselle, the VELCO spokeswoman.

“Vermont is gradually shifting to a winter peak,” she said.
Crocker-Ross said there is no need to worry that winter power interruptions will become routine because of increased demand.

“It’s not something that isn’t being addressed,” she said.
Extreme weather patterns associated with climate change also must be factored into planning for a reliable grid, according to NYISO.

Technological innovations
Expanding the grid is only one component of the equation. Others include developing technology for storing electricity and making the grid more flexible and more efficient, said Kellogg, the Skidmore professor.

“We need to think about all of this holistically,” she said.
Monitoring demand and responding appropriately, in order to use existing electricity more efficiently, is as important as generating more electricity, said Crocker-Ross of EnergyHub.
One emerging technology is to install computer software in homes to adjust thermostats automatically when the grid is reaching peak capacity. Temporarily reducing the demand slightly, when multiplied across hundreds of thousands of homes, can have huge impact, she said.
Another example is software that shuts off the charging system once an electric vehicle is fully charged. Electric vehicle owners that have home charging systems often plug in their vehicles overnight while they sleep, but it may take only a few hours for the vehicle to be fully charged, Crocker-Ross explained.

All of these steps amount to “measuring the efficiency of the grid and leveraging it out,” Kellogg said.

In the push to shift to energy sources that don’t contribute to climate change, efforts have focused on expanding production of wind and solar power. But those sources have limitations in that they are weather dependent and also cannot be adjusted to meet spikes in demand.
“They cannot produce energy when the sun is not shining or the wind is not blowing,” the NYSIO report explained.

So having a dependable supply of wind and solar power necessitates developing a system of storing the renewable energy that is generated.

“We’re used to, as a society, to get constant flows of electricity,” explained Kellogg, the Skidmore professor.

Technology is already developed in which homeowners with solar systems can store excess power in batteries to use for their own homes as needed, Crocker-Ross said.
Being able to respond to the ebb and flow of demand is important, experts said.
VELCO has invested in a system that constantly monitors usage and sends data in real time to distributors via fiber-optic lines installed alongside transmission lines so that distributors can instantaneously respond to changing demand, Louiselle said.

“It really is, kind of, orchestrating the system,” she said.
Another emerging technology is “two-way flow,” a concept through which electric vehicles can send unneeded power back onto the grid.

A vehicle owner, for example, could charge the vehicle overnight, drive it to work at 9 a.m., and then plug it back in at work to send unneeded electricity back into the system, Kellogg explained.
“We are close, but it is not standardized yet,” Crocker-Ross said.

Some vehicle manufacturers are already selling electric vehicles that can return excess power back to a home system, she said.

Renewable natural gas, a low-carbon fuel that is generated from food waste and methane emitted by livestock, shows promise of becoming part of the long-range energy picture, said Stella, of National Grid.

The advantage of renewable natural gas is that it prevents livestock emissions from going into the atmosphere at the same time as it reduces carbon emissions from vehicle fuel, Kellogg said.