Utilities require plenty of partners to clean electrification path

Published on September 28, 2022 by Hil Anderson

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While a Category 5 hurricane was bearing down on Florida this week, utility executives on a virtual panel marking National Clean Energy Week said partnerships among utilities along with a wide range of stakeholders and government agencies would be essential to creating a power grid that not only features minimal emissions but can also weather the growing threat of natural disasters brought on by climate change.

The approach of Hurricane Ian had an army of linemen, tree crews and support personnel streaming into the Sunshine State as they have for countless mass-outage situations, but it will take the proverbial village to guide the long-term expansion required to power a zero-emissions electricity sector and improve its ability to withstand increasingly robust weather-related emergencies and disasters.

“This transition won’t succeed without everyone on board,” said Pedro Pizarro, president and CEO of Edison International and the Vice Chair of the Edison Electric Institute (EEI).

Pizarro and the members of the panel agreed that the dreaded effects of climate change were already being felt around the world, including more frequent damaging storms like Hurricane Ian and the unprecedented and deadly fire seasons that have plagued California, throwing once-venerable Pacific Gas & Electric into bankruptcy. Pizarro said 40 percent of U.S. counties have recently experienced a climate-related weather disaster, and that “finding ways to adapt, not just mitigate, is necessary.”

The company’s research has determined that the best way to both mitigate and adapt would be a complete transition to a renewable-power world that would revert the climate back to a more hospitable state. “This is a nearly complete transformation of how we source and use energy across all sectors of the economy,” Pizarro said.

“Our job has gotten bigger,” said Emily Sanford Fisher, General Counsel, Corporate Secretary, and Senior Vice President, Clean Energy at EEI. “It went from just reducing our emissions to helping other sectors reduce theirs.”

The early stages of the campaign to wean the world off fossil fuels were focused on replacing coal and natural-gas generation. The journey has since widened in scope; utilities are increasingly expected to provide the supply basis for electrifying the transportation and construction sectors at the same time it must expand and improve the electric grid and ensure that electric vehicles (EVs) and all-electric residential and commercial buildings have the power they require.

The list extends from Congress and the federal government down to local planning and building-code offices. “All of this is going to require group planning,” said Erik Takayesu, Senior Vice President, Asset Strategy and Planning, at Southern California Edison. “That’s why we want to see more engagement across all stakeholders, including regulators.”

As demonstrated this week in Florida, the resilience of the grid will be a top priority for utilities and emergency planners as the odds of weather-related disasters grow while society depends more on reliable power to function. The effects of climate change are also being felt in California where wildfires have utilities sinking millions of dollars into hardening their grids, including the previously unthinkable investment of burying thousands of miles of transmission lines underground.

Even the seemingly simple task of vegetation management becomes more daunting when it comes to power lines running through vast areas of remote forest, much of which is under federal control and comes with its own book of environmental regulations and contracting rules.

“Partnerships are important, particularly with federal agencies and with the U.S. Forest Service in particular,” said Joy Ditto, President and CEO of the American Public Power Association. “We are facing costs in a variety of places, but partnerships are going to be a key on the front end, but also on the back end in terms of restoration and resilience.”

The major investor-owned electric utilities (IOU) tend to have the size and capabilities to provide their own customer incentives and tackle expansions on the grid and upgrade resilience. Many smaller utilities and co-ops, however, have less capital to decarbonize their territories while keeping customer rates affordable; however, there are opportunities for smaller entities to work with their larger IOUs on advancing mutually beneficial projects, particularly in cybersecurity and building new transmission lines to carry renewable power from remote locations.

“We have long invested in each other’s facilities,” said Ditto. “And now we need to link arms to develop these new technologies.”