Waite: Charging ahead on electrification

CDTA Director of Maintenance David Williams plugs in a brand new CDTA 100% electric bus at a charging statiion at the Watervliet Avenue garage in Albany.
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CDTA Director of Maintenance David Williams plugs in a brand new CDTA 100% electric bus at a charging statiion at the Watervliet Avenue garage in Albany.

WEIGHING IN – At its nearly 174,000-square-foot facility in Albany, CDTA can only charge two electric buses at a time.

Plug in any more buses than that, drawing 70 kilowatts of power each, and the transportation company risks overwhelming the site’s allotted supply of electricity from National Grid.

Currently, CDTA has eight electric buses, which, depending on the weather and other conditions, can run for up to 240 miles on a six-hour charge. So having the capacity to charge two buses at once makes for a workable rotation. But on Nov. 15, CDTA celebrated a $25.4 million allotment from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law to pay for the additional electrification of its fleet, including the addition of 12 electric buses. By 2025, CDTA is planning to electrify 25% of its total fleet of 270 buses.

By 2035?

Andrew Waite - Weighing In“We want to move toward a fleet that is 100% zero emissions,” Capital District Transportation Authority CEO Carm Basile told me during a recent tour of the facility.

The term “zero emissions” accommodates for alternative sources of energy, such as hydrogen fuel cells, which are still being developed, Basile said.

As the limited power supply in CDTA’s garage shows, broad electrification is not as simple as  swapping out gas guzzlers for EVs. If everyone in upstate New York became the proud owner of a Leaf or Tesla tomorrow, National Grid’s system wouldn’t be able to support the switch. Industry experts say the current electrical load will need to be roughly tripled to meet the volume of electric vehicles expected to be on the roads over the next two decades, according to Michael DiAcetis, a Customer and Community manager at National Grid, who works with CDTA.

In New York, regulatory action taken by Gov. Kathy Hochul in September will require all new passenger cars, pickup trucks and SUVs sold here to be zero emissions by 2035. Governments across the country are facilitating the transition to EVs.

That’s why the electrification conversation is now happening at nearly every corner of the power grid. Earlier this month, National Grid put out a report detailing what it would take to electrify New York’s highways to meet expected future demand. The transition will require time and money, and potential corner cuts could be used for short-term savings.

But those shortcuts would be a wrong turn. Now is the time to put all our might behind investing in electric power. In fact, National Grid’s report uses the term “no-regrets upgrades.”

Now is the time because federal dollars – through distributions from laws such as the Inflation Reduction Act and Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act – are flowing toward green energy projects like never before.

And now is the time because, for the sake of our planet, it has to be. We’re already so far behind the curve on addressing climate change that viable shortcuts don’t exist. We need investments for the long haul.

CDTA can be seen as a microcosm of the energy transition. As mentioned, the agency’s goal is to make a quarter of its fleet electric by 2025. CDTA is currently working with National Grid to upgrade its Albany facility so that it’ll be able to charge more buses at once. Part of the $25 million awarded recently will pay for the infrastructure needed to properly equip its garages. In fact, the $25 million will pay for about a third of the overall goal of 25% electrification by 2025, according to Basile.

But as CDTA heads down the road toward 100% zero-emission buses, the agency is going to need to spend even more money. This means either massive overhauls to its three facilities, or building an entirely new facility outfitted to repower more than 200 electric buses.

“So it’s two paths: One is to continue to upgrade this facility to accommodate more electric vehicles,” Basile said. “And two, more long term, it’s what do we look like 10 years from now?”

National Grid – like other utility companies – is having similar conversations about the future of electric power. National Grid is calling for major investment now. In its “Electric Highways” paper issued earlier this month, the utility and partners outlined a plan for creating charging hubs at 71 service stations primarily situated along roads such as the Thruway and the Northway.

The study says these service areas will have to be outfitted with at least 20 personal changing stations for cars as well as additional charging docks to power trucks. At peak usage, these stations will require as much charging capacity by 2030 as it takes to power a sports stadium – 5 megawatts. By 2040, that demand is likely to increase to more than 20 megawatts, which is what it takes to power a small town.

The cost for all of this is massive and unknown, because much depends on how much energy use can be offset by other sources, such as solar and battery storage. No doubt, an unknown cost can be worrying for taxpayers and for National Grid customers.

But if cost is your concern, consider that every dollar spent on programs to reduce vehicle emissions saves the American people $9 in benefits to public health and the environment, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Or perhaps consider that the cost of charging a car is roughly a third of what it costs to fill up a gas tank.

If the financial argument is a dead end with you, just look at the extreme weather we’re seeing on our planet. A well-circulated Rebuild by Design recent report found 90% of U.S. counties have experienced a federally declared national disaster since 2011. The cost to rebuild after such events is certainly never cheap, and the toll taken on uprooted American lives doesn’t have a price tag.

In its study, National Grid presents a plan to update existing service stations that includes tapping into high-voltage transmission lines that currently run along highways. The utility says these rebuilds must be done right, which means not just building sites to meet the current demand for electricity, but building sites that won’t need expensive upgrades a few years down the line.

National Grid’s current power system was developed over more than a century, and enhancements along the way have mostly come to accommodate the present moment rather than face future prospects.

“If you think about the existing infrastructure we use now, it took 120 years – plus or minus – to build out,” said National Grid’s DiAcetis. “And now we may be challenged to triple its capacity over the next 25 years.”

Frankly, when it comes to energy consumption and the health of our planet, our current moment is already stuck in the past.

That’s why it’s so critical for us to charge ahead.

Columnist Andrew Waite can be reached at [email protected] and at 518-417-9338. Follow him on Twitter @UpstateWaite.

Categories: Andrew Waite, News, Opinion, Opinion, Saratoga County, Schenectady County

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