By David S Lapp
The author is the Maryland People’s Counsel, the director of an independent government agency dedicated to serving Maryland’s residential utility customers.
The March 10 comment “More than consumer choice” reinforces several false or unsupported myths that the fossil fuel industry has been promoting to preserve the status quo to the detriment of Maryland consumers and the achievement of the state’s climate goals . What the petroleum traders fail to mention is that electric technologies are outperforming fossil technologies and, according to technical analysis conducted for the Maryland Commission on Climate Change and for my office – the legal representative – represents the most cost-effective path to meeting the state’s climate change goals Maryland utility customers.
Among its flaws, the Unsupported Commentary argues that “our power grid cannot handle the demand” of electrification. That’s the argument Maryland’s largest gas and electric utility, Exelon-owned Baltimore Gas & Electric, made last year to reject proposals originally part of the Climate Solutions Now Act. The argument delays the transition away from fossil fuels and is used as a rationale for accelerating the already high spending on gas and electricity systems, which the utilities use to generate profits for their investors.
Another example is the false claim that Marylanders depend on “renewable fuels” to heat their homes, cook their food, and more. Few, if any, homes in Maryland use “renewable” gas for heating, cooking, or otherwise. Our November report, “Climate Policy for Maryland’s Gas Utilities,” shows that alternatives to fossil gas are costly and unavailable to any significant extent. But don’t take my word for it: even BGE calls its potential a future “hypothesis,” and a NiSource gas executive recently told state regulators that “renewable” gas is “very expensive” and “unaffordable for customers to offer.” ”
The Commentary also opposes electrification because of the possibility of physical attacks on the electrical system. We undoubtedly need to protect the electrical system from terrorist attacks, but the frequent explosions caused by the use of fossil fuels in homes, apartments and commercial buildings pose a far greater and more immediate threat to customers.
The author also writes that a proposed law last year would have imposed a “ban” on “the use of liquid fuels in our homes and office buildings.” But the “ban” wasn’t a ban on fossil fuels, it was a building code requirement on all-electric ones new Building. The provision would have had no effect existing Buildings that make up the bulk of the government building stock. And it’s well known that all-electric new builds cost less than those that run on fossil fuels — aside from the environmental benefits of electrification.
When it comes to whether utilities are making a gradual transition to electrification, it’s time to stop the fear mongering. For one, Maryland’s investor-owned utilities rank very high on key reliability metrics. And with competent utility power, the electrification of our homes and businesses should not jeopardize the distribution system:
- Electrification takes a long time because building stocks are turned over slowly and the system has time to develop. Our analysis projects a gradual replacement of gas furnaces with electric heat pumps by 2035, leaving ample time for a competent utility to make any necessary changes.
- During the 1950’s and 1960’s, Maryland’s electric utilities handled peak annual demand growth that dwarfed the growth that can reasonably be expected from electrification today. A technical study by The Brattle Group, a consulting firm, for Pepco and filed with DC regulators concluded that with high electrification, “the system will grow at a rate that is … far below the growth rates that Pepco reliably managed in the past”.
- On the hottest days of summer, when the air conditioning systems are at full capacity, the demands on Maryland’s power distribution system are highest. As people slowly switch from fossil fuel heat to efficient electric heat pumps, demand for electricity will increase in winter, but winter “peak demand” will still be – for some time – well below the summer peaks that the power grid can already handle. It will take many years for peak winter demand to catch up with summer demand. Consistent with other findings, Brattle said Pepco’s peak winter demand wouldn’t catch up with summer until 2036.
- BGE has historically planned and met much larger peaks in demand than is expected today, as we show in a recent report. Nearly 20 years ago, BGE met requirements – and forecast 2010 requirements – that were significantly higher than are realized today; Demand has fallen due to energy efficiency. And since that time, BGE has spent more than $4 billion on its system and is spending the spend even faster today.
Despite two working groups at the Public Service Commission on the future of the electricity system, the BGE has not addressed these facts or presented data to support its claim that electrification will endanger the system. Unfortunately, the ambiguous and broad claims made by the utility are being sustained by others – including oil traders – who are trying to further their self-interest.
But the point here is not that investments for electrification are not necessary. You will be. Nor is it that every proposal that drives electrification is good legislation. Some measures are driving electrification at very high and unnecessary costs for customers. What is needed is legislation that advances government policy while ensuring that utilities operate in the best interests of customers at the lowest cost, based on facts.