What will electrification cost the distribution system?

June 28, 2022

New analysis by Energy and Resources Group (ERG) faculty and graduate students suggests billions of dollars in upgrades to California's electric distribution system will be needed as the state moves toward an increasingly electrified, clean-energy future.

Published as a Haas Energy Institute working paper, the analysis by Professor Duncan Callaway and PhD students Anna Brockway and Salma Elmallah identifies building electrification (namely through space and water heating) and vehicle charging in Pacific Gas and Electric's (PG&E) northern California service area as two potential strains on our existing electric grid. They project the energy transition will require $1 billion between now and 2030 (and $5 billion by 2050) to meet accelerate the pace of upgrades needed to service the additional power draw.

"The key takeaway: If we’re serious about electrification, our distribution infrastructure needs a lot more love and attention," wrote Agriculture and Resource Economics Professor Meredith Fowlie, who broke down the research for the Haas Energy Institute's blog.

According to Fowlie, projected rates of electric vehicle adoption outlined in the working paper will likely drive the pace of distribution system upgrades. Should Californians adopt electric vehicles at a higher-than-anticipated rate, PG&E would have to triple their projected pace of feeder upgrades per year through 2030.

Unlike residential vehicle charging, the authors found that increasing the rate of vehicle charging at commercial locations will not increase the cost of distributing electricity on the power grid—likely due to excess capacity on commercial circuits.

According to Fowlie, California utilities could provide better, more precise estimates regarding the cost of distribution system upgrades by disclosing additional information regarding their infrastructure and operations.

Investor-owned utilities are required by the California Public Utilities Commission to collect and release a list of planned upgrades and expenditures they plan to make to their distribution system. Additional disclosures from other statewide utilities would help the planning process. 

Read Fowlie’s full blog post and the original paper at the Energy Institute website.