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Clean energy journalism for a cooler tomorrow

MISO takes a deep look at electrification’s potential impact on its grid

A new report outlines how EVs and building electrification will pose challenges for the country’s geographically largest grid operator.
By Andy Kowalczyk

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On May 5, the country’s largest regional transmission organization, the Midcontinent Independent System Operator, hosted a workshop dedicated to its new Electrification Insights report. The virtual audience included transmission-dependent utilities and transmission owners, state and city regulators, consumer advocates, environmental organizations and independent power producers — a diverse array of attendees reflecting the diverse impacts electrification will have across MISO’s 15-state footprint.

In the works since 2019, the report covers the grid impacts of the shift from fossil fuels to electricity to power vehicles, building heating and industrial processes. It’s one of the most comprehensive views yet of a future that deep decarbonization will demand but whose effects on the grid at large are still unclear.

Built on research and modeling from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and consulting groups Applied Energy Group and Emerging Futures, MISO’s report projects the future shift in its 2020 annual electricity demand of 711 terawatt-hours under three scenarios: 20%, 40% and 60% growth in new load from electrification.

The report assessed residential, commercial and industrial loads for electric vehicles and building heating, ventilation and air conditioning, as well as for industrial electrification and residential appliances.

Beyond these technology and sector analyses, a number of regional complexities stood out. Applied Energy Group’s analysis identified a high potential of electrification for heating in the colder climates typical of MISO’s northern territory, particularly in states with an abundance of natural-gas infrastructure that needs to be switched out. But in the southern swaths of its territory, where electric-powered air conditioning dominates grid load, the potential for switching is much lower.

This difference has implications for an issue that’s arisen in recent years since the integration of the MISO South regional division: the constraint imposed by the existing 1,000-megawatt transmission interconnection between its geographically isolated north and south regions. MISO’s analysis did not model this constraint, but its electrification projections indicate that future power flows will exceed this 1,000-megawatt limit in both the low” and moderate” cases. MISO’s 2019 Transmission Expansion Planning report explored the potential for increasing that subregional transmission capacity, but currently there are no approved projects designed to alleviate this constraint.

Multiple challenges raised in multiple forums

For a regional transmission organization of MISO’s size and complexity, electrification presents some significant planning challenges, and those are acknowledged throughout the Electrification Insights report. Even more concerns were raised a week before the report’s unveiling during the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s technical conference, Electrification and the Grid of the Future.

One major challenge that all regional transmission organizations face is the need to grow transmission capacity to ensure reliability and affordability. In response to a question from FERC Chair Richard Glick about the potential for infrastructure overbuild, Larry Gasteiger, executive director of the Wires trade group, said that the real risk is in the potential for underbuilding.”

Given the needs that we see not only with electrification but also…with meeting clean energy goals and [ensuring the] resilience of the system, we have a tremendous amount of investment to go,” Gasteiger said, echoing the long-standing policy preferences of Wires. We are in a hole right now, and we have a lot of ground to make up.”

Gasteiger’s answer aligns with MISO President Clair Moeller’s comments at MISO’s Dec. 2020 board meeting, during which Moeller highlighted the urgent need for investments in a grid serving a growing number of states and utilities with aggressive clean energy goals.

MISO’s largest planning effort to date, the Multi-Value Projects, was undertaken nearly a decade ago. The transmission buildout it led to has facilitated a number of wind projects in its northern region.

MISO’s interconnection queue is now dominated by solar, but it also includes gigawatts’ worth of wind power projects. These planned projects exceed the supply of transmission infrastructure throughout the footprint, as highlighted in reports from groups such as the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Sustainable FERC project.

MISO’s Long-Range Transmission Plan effort focuses on enhancing system reliability over the long term, rather than specifically emphasizing the boosting of generation interconnection capacity. Still, it could have wide-ranging implications for higher renewable penetrations throughout the footprint and electrification at a scale that will significantly increase demand across its system. Notably, this is MISO’s first large transmission planning effort since 2011.

Transmission infrastructure improvements could provide greater access to clean energy resources throughout the MISO footprint. Some climate advocates may be alarmed by the fact that the Electrification Insights report models only 20% renewable energy penetration throughout MISO’s territory. But MISO engineer Hilary Brown said this is a result of the study showing the transmission system at its current levels of renewable penetration. The planning process to integrate a higher percentage of renewables is being carried out as part of MISO’s Renewable Integration Impact Assessment.

Another issue raised during the FERC workshop is the link between electrification, energy equity and environmental justice. One clear risk is that low-income ratepayers could be left behind as more affluent customers electrify, leaving them stuck with natural-gas service that’s increasingly expensive in order to cover stranded infrastructure costs. Electrification that isn’t accompanied by clean energy and grid infrastructure improvements could also make the grid more reliant on coal and natural-gas power plants, which are often sited near impoverished communities.

In terms of EVs — arguably the most pressing electrification endpoints to plan for — the report found that light-duty EVs dominate load growth based on sheer numbers, even when there is also aggressive growth in medium- to heavy-duty EVs. This could present a future challenge for MISO, but research shows that approaches including managed charging, using time-of-use rates to mitigate peak impacts and employing vehicle-to-grid (V2G) technology to provide power during increased demand could all play a critical role in dealing with peak demand and market impacts.

To model what some of these charging protocols might look like, the team ran two scenarios exploring how variable-rate smart charging and V2G could affect load shape. The analysis indicated that both may offer significant merits.

The future of V2G may be less certain, however, considering MISO’s delay in implementing Federal Energy Regulatory Commission Order 2222. The order mandates that grid operators open up their wholesale energy markets to distributed energy resources — a key step in providing incentives for V2G services. There’s also the fact that V2G technology is expected to mature relatively late in MISO’s electrification forecast. Still, plug-in electric vehicles show significant growth in MISO’s moderate electrification growth scenario, and depending on when V2G becomes widely available, it could be a key asset in load management, and even help provide price stability.

Clearly, electrification goals throughout MISO’s territory are driving trends, but it’s not just in blue cities and states. Amazon has pledged to have 100,000 electric delivery vehicles on the road by 2030. GM recently changed course and announced a commitment to selling all-electric sedans and SUVs by 2035. Performance standards for buildings like those recently instituted in St. Louis, Missouri could shift the balance in favor of greater electrification as well. Utilities such as Entergy and Great River Energy, both cited in the report, and those with clean energy and net-zero carbon goals, including Xcel Energy, Alliant Energy, Ameren, Consumers Energy and Evergy, are driving trends too.

While it’s impossible to forecast the future with perfect accuracy, trends in electrification are clearly gaining momentum. If regional transmission organizations such as MISO do not plan accordingly, the complex challenges identified in the Electrification Insights report could become even more difficult realities to grapple with in the future.

It takes a long time to build transmission, and even though electrification can take a little bit of time to pick up speed, it’s going to come quickly once it [achieves] policy successes and cost parity with other technologies,” report co-author Jordan Bakke, MISO’s director of policy studies, said at the FERC technical workshop. We need to make sure that things are moving and that we are proactive. We won’t have the opportunity to wait and see things come into play before we can start the development of infrastructure. We need to plan for the future.”

(Lead photo: John Middelkoop) 

Andy Kowalczyk is a consultant based in New Orleans who works on clean energy issues within the MISO footprint as well as local and state utility regulatory issues throughout MISO South.