Meeting electricity demand by reducing usage

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BURLINGTON — Vermont may be able to avoid expensive electrical grid upgrades by increasing the use of technological solutions and in particular efficiency, according to several speakers at an industry conference Wednesday in Burlington.

"One way to meet the growth (in electric demand) is not to have the growth," said Ethan Goldman, an energy informatics architect at Vermont Energy Investment Corp.

Managing peak demand will become especially important in coming years, as electric vehicles proliferate and sectors of the economy that now rely on fossil fuels or other emissions-heavy fuels convert to electricity, speakers said.

"It's about crushing the ... peak," said Mary Powell, CEO of Green Mountain Power, the Quebec-owned utility that supplies around 78 percent of Vermont's electricity.

Grid operators must pay to build and maintain enough capacity to handle peak power demand, but that amount can be at least twice what's needed on any given day.

Lower those daily and seasonal peaks, the thinking goes, and you can lower costs.

Vermont Electric Co-op CEO Christine Hallquist said her company's power lines are usually transmitting 54 percent to 56 percent of their capacity.

Industry representatives at the conference discussed a range of approaches to solving the problem of peak demand. Those include increasingly sophisticated tools such as "smart" home electric meters that relay a range of data to utilities, and machine-learning software that can predict when peaks will take place.

The conference was sponsored by Vermont Electric Power Co., a transmission company.

High on the list of possible solutions — and at the top of many speakers' lists — was energy efficiency. The cheapest form of electricity is power that isn't purchased, more than one of them said.

Powell said she hopes Green Mountain Power can bring its peak demand down to 600 megawatts, from the current peak of 760 megawatts.

Doing so "can shed a lot of the costs of the inefficiencies of the New England grid and we can save significant money over the next couple of decades by doing that," Powell said.

Many of the conference's nearly 20 presenters said these savings would be realized through greater focus on the people who actually buy the electricity.

"Grandma's electrical system" — the 130-year-old model in which monolithic utilities get energy from a small number of huge electric generators — won't work in the future, Powell said. That's partly because the logistics of that model don't mesh with small renewable energy generators that are proliferating throughout the state. But it's also in part because customers are demanding other approaches.

Most Americans don't support the massive coal-fired power plants that once dominated the country's electric market, because they're aware of the costs and risks of the pollution they generate, said Gil Quiniones, president and CEO of the New York Power Authority.

And while the American coal industry has been decimated by cheap natural gas, the cheapest new generation resource these days is actually wind power, said Tom Dunn, VELCO's president and CEO.

Vermonters should feel some assurance that, for reasons like these, energy conservation and renewable energy generation will continue to expand even in the face of opposition from President Donald Trump and Congress, Dunn and others said.

"This transformation is going to happen in spite of what goes on in Washington," Dunn said, echoing similar remarks from Quiniones.

"I think people, customers, cities want this to change," Quiniones said. "I don't think federal policy will be able to stop it."

Powell put it more bluntly.

Efforts like the ones grid managers discussed Wednesday will prevail in the end, Powell said. And, "because a lot of people are pissed off," their success will exceed what could have been accomplished without that added motivation.

Mike Polhamus writes about energy and the environment for VTDigger.

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