Reliable electricity depends on our ability to work together

When I’m home, like everyone else, I flip on the light switch and expect my lights to come on without giving a thought about if there’s enough electricity available.

That’s the way it should be. People are busy and shouldn’t be concerned about there being enough electricity to keep the lights on, the refrigerator cool and the heating and cooling systems working.

Unfortunately, as a manager at Benton REA, I’m worried about our ability to have electricity available for our members at the flip of a switch.

I’m not alone. Utility managers across the Northwest are expressing serious concerns about not having enough electric generating resources to meet the demands of our consumers in the not-too-distant future.

There are several reasons. In simple terms, the demand for electricity is increasing while reliable forms of electric generation are being reduced.

I could spend the rest of this column explaining the details about the challenges utilities face to meet demand and would barely scratch the surface. Instead, I’m going to focus on the rising number of electric vehicles to highlight the need for utilities and consumers to work together.

Vehicle emissions are the largest source of carbon emissions in Washington state.

Our state is focused on reducing carbon emissions and has aggressive goals to electrify our transportation. A 2022 bill requires all passenger and light duty vehicles with a model year of 2030 and beyond to be electric.

Projections for the sales of electric cars are increasing, with some indicating 50% of new cars sold by 2025 to be electric.

What does that mean for electric utilities? It could result in a huge increase in the peak demand for electricity.

In simple terms, we need more electricity in the evening, when customers are already using the most electricity.

Utilities often calculate peak demand in kilowatts (kW). The average house served by Benton REA has a peak demand of almost 10 kW of electricity and typically reaches that peak when people get home from work, cook, adjust their thermostats, wash dishes, wash clothes and so on.

An electric vehicle is typically charged by a 240-volt charger with a demand for electricity between 7-15 kW. If people have an electric vehicle, the natural thing to do is to plug it in when they get home. With just one electric vehicle, the house potentially goes from 10 kW to 17-25 kW of peak demand.

If the number of people owning electric vehicles is even close to the projections, utilities could see a huge increase in peak demand on our systems.

Utilities are concerned we won’t have reliable electric generation to meet that growing demand.

Utilities also may have to make significant and costly upgrades to our electric transmission and distribution systems for the power lines and transformers to have the capacity to meet the growing peak demand.

Worst case scenario: higher rates for consumers and less reliable electricity.

That is simply unacceptable!

There is a path forward that allows us to electrify transportation, reduce carbon emissions, keep rates low and keep the reliable electric system that our members want and need.

That path is utilities like Benton REA, partnering with our members and working together. Electric cooperatives like Benton REA are owned by our members, so working hand in hand with them comes naturally.

The average commute requires an electric vehicle to only plug in for a few hours to restore the battery to full charge.

Waiting until later at night to start charging reduces the peak demand of the house. The vehicle is still ready to go in the morning.

Combine that with reducing the rate at which the vehicle charges and charging midday while at work when the demand is also lower, and we are on a path to success.

By working together, we can incorporate electric vehicles onto our system, reduce carbon emissions, reduce the costly upgrades to our infrastructure, lessen the amount of the new electric generation that will be required, maintain a reliable system and keep our rates low for members.

This same philosophy of working together applies to other issues facing the electric utility industry in the efforts to reduce carbon.

Legislators and utilities need to work together to ensure laws don’t establish goals that eliminate necessary and reliable resources before the technology is available to replace them.

We need to work together to improve salmon runs while keeping the lower Snake River dams, which produce incredibly valuable and reliable carbon-free electricity and allows for barging, which avoids hundreds of semitrucks or train rail cars and the increased emissions that would result.

Benton REA is committed to working with our members, our legislators, and all interested parties to find common ground and common-sense solutions.

The challenges we face are difficult. But I have faith in the cooperative spirit that I know still exists. I am hopeful that we can come together in a respectful manner to find the solutions that our members and our communities deserve.

Troy Berglund is interim general manager and vice president of member services at Benton Rural Electric Association.

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