Opinion: Debunking myths about electrification
By David S. Lapp
The writer is Maryland People’s Counsel, the head of an independent state agency that advocates for Maryland’s residential utility customers.
The March 10 commentary “More than consumer choice” amplifies several false or unsupported myths the fossil fuel industry is propagating to preserve the status quo, to the detriment of Maryland’s consumers and the state’s achievement of its climate goals. What the petroleum distributors don’t mention is that electric technologies are outperforming fossil technologies and provide the least-cost path for reaching state climate policy goals, according to technical analyses performed for the Maryland Commission on Climate Change and for my office — the statutory representative of Maryland’s utility customers.
Among its errors, the commentary argues without support that “our electric grid cannot handle the demand” of electrification. That is the argument that Maryland’s largest gas and electric utility, Exelon-owned Baltimore Gas & Electric, advanced last year to defeat proposals that were initially part of the Climate Solutions Now Act. The argument delays the transition away from fossil fuels and serves as a rationale for accelerating the already high levels of gas and electric utility system spending for which utilities earn profits for their investors.
Another example is the false assertion that Marylanders “depend” on “renewable fuels to heat their homes, cook their food, and more.” Few — if any — Maryland homes 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 at any significant scale. But don’t take my word for it: Even BGE calls their potential a future “hypothesis,” and a NiSource gas executive recently told state regulators that “renewable” gas is “very expensive” and “cost-prohibitive to offer for customers.”
The commentary also pushes back against electrification because of the potential for physical attacks on the electric system. We undoubtedly need to protect the electric system from terrorist attacks, but the frequent explosions caused by fossil fuel use in homes, apartments, and commercial buildings pose a far greater and more immediate threat to customers.
The author also writes that a legislative proposal last year would have put a “ban” on “the use of liquid fuels in our homes and office buildings.” But the “ban” was not a prohibition on fossil fuels but rather an all-electric building code requirement for new buildings. The provision would have had no impact on existing buildings, which make up the bulk of the State building stock. And it is well-established that all-electric new buildings cost less than those that use fossil fuels — setting aside electrification’s environmental benefits.
Regarding whether the utilities can manage a gradual transition to electrification, it is time to stop the fear-mongering. For one, Maryland’s investor-owned utilities rank very high on key reliability metrics. And with competent utility performance, electrifying our homes and businesses should not put the distribution system at risk:
- Electrification takes a long time because building stock turns over slowly, allowing time for the system to develop. Our analysis projects a gradual replacement of gas furnaces to electric heat pumps through 2035. That leaves plenty of time for a competent utility to make any necessary changes.
- In the 1950s and 1960s, Maryland electric utilities managed annual peak demand growth that dwarfs the growth that can be reasonably expected from electrification today. A technical study by The Brattle Group, a consulting firm, for Pepco filed with D.C. regulators concluded that with high electrification “the system will grow at a rate that is … well below growth rates that Pepco has reliably managed in the past.”
- Demands on Maryland’s electric distribution system are highest on the hottest summer days when air conditioners are maxed out. As people slowly switch from fossil powered heat to efficient electric heat pumps, demand for electricity in winter will grow, but winter “peak demand” will still be far below—for some time—the summer peak that the electric grid can already handle. It will take many years for winter peak demand to catch up to that in summer. Consistent with other findings, Brattle said Pepco’s winter peak demand would not catch up with summer until 2036.
- BGE historically has planned and met much greater peak demands than are anticipated today, as we show in a recent report. Almost 20 years ago BGE met demands — and in 2010 it projected demands — substantially higher than are being realized today; demand has dropped as a result of energy efficiency. And since that time, BGE has spent more than $4 billion on its system, and it continues spending at an even faster pace today.
Despite two working groups at the Public Service Commission on the future of the electric system, BGE has not addressed these facts nor provided data to support its claim that electrification will jeopardize the system. Yet, unfortunately, the utility’s ambiguous and broad assertions are perpetuated by others — including the petroleum distributors — seeking to advance their self-interests.
To be clear, the point here is not that investments for electrification will not be necessary. They will be. Nor is the point that every proposal that advances electrification makes good legislation. Some measures advance electrification at a very high and unnecessary cost for customers. What’s needed are laws that advance state policy while ensuring that utilities perform in the interest of customers at least cost, based on facts.