The debate over proposals to transition Maryland buildings to electric heat and hot water systems has saddled state legislators and industry leaders with a daunting question: How do you build an electric grid capable of delivering much more power while also converting to renewable sources of electricity?

In March, that question helped convince members of a Senate committee to amend SB 528, a bill focused on decarbonizing energy use in buildings. In addition to extending the timeline for buildings to lower their carbon emissions and eliminating the establishment of an all-electric building code, the revised legislation orders several studies of the opportunities, challenges and impacts of decarbonizing buildings. One amendment requires the Maryland Public Service Commission to study and make recommendations on the readiness of the electric grid to accommodate building and vehicle electrification, and determine how that transition would impact electricity rates for Maryland customers.

To date, electric utilities and grid operators have offered limited, detailed, public comment on the joint challenge of decarbonizing the grid while also supporting more EVs and electric building systems.

Both BGE and Pepco declined requests for interviews for this article.

However, the Eastern Interconnection Planning Collaborative (EIPC) – an association of grid operators and planning authorities in the eastern and central U.S. – released a white paper last fall entitled “Planning the Grid for Increased Renewables.” It outlines multiple large challenges that have been identified by its members and offers recommendations for policymakers to consider to ensure the reliability of the transmission grid during that transition. Those challenges and recommendations include the following.

Transmission infrastructure: New sources of wind and solar energy are being developed in different locations than traditional generation resources. “In some parts of the Eastern Interconnection, these resources – existing and planned – are clustered in areas that are remote from the load centers and interconnect…at the extremities of today’s grid,” the white paper states. Consequently, significant investment in new transmission lines, substations and other infrastructure is needed.

Changing energy use patterns: Increasing adoption of electric vehicles and electric building systems are increasing demand for electricity and over time could alter peak demand hours. At the same time, rooftop solar arrays, backup battery systems and other technologies are impacting energy demand but are largely invisible to grid operators. In addition, wind and solar resources introduce new dynamics for grid planning and operations due to different technology and weather dependency of these resources. Consequently, the industry needs better information and modeling to understand how the grid of the future will operate.

Collaborating with policymakers: Decarbonizing the grid, the building sector and the transportation sector is an extremely complex undertaking. Consequently, legislative efforts need to include greater collaboration among policymakers, regulators and the utility industry, according to the white paper. “The challenges described are not insurmountable, nor should they serve as a barrier to the movement toward a grid made up of environmentally cleaner resources. Nevertheless, grid operators and planners need to be more engaged in the discussions to ensure continued delivery of reliable, efficient and affordable electricity.”

EIPC Executive Director John Buechler stressed that “the timeline for completion of the transition is a concern for the industry. The technical issues are not insurmountable. But the timelines that have been established by some regions for achieving net-zero carbon emissions from the electric sector are extremely optimistic.”

Changing federal and state regulations as well as operating tariffs for electric grid operators and utilities to support a decarbonized grid and building sector could easily take years to sort out, Buechler said.

The U.S. Department of Energy “has recently announced its plans to kick off the National Transmission Planning Study as part of the ‘Building a Better Grid’ initiative to identify what new transmission infrastructure would be needed to accelerate decarbonization while maintaining system reliability,” he said.

Ultimately, a major investment would be needed to make those infrastructure improvements. While the federal, bipartisan infrastructure package allocated about $70 billion to US DOE, $5.2 billion is allocated for transmission upgrades or new transmission for the purpose of serving decarbonization goals.

“At the grid-scale, both our natural gas infrastructure and our power infrastructure need a truly large investment. Our country has not invested in critical infrastructure in far too long,” said Ben Roush, a Principal at FSi Engineers in Baltimore. Roush, who specializes in high-performance building codes and energy modeling and commissioning, is a supporter of building decarbonization efforts.

He points out that America’s energy systems are vulnerable and require major upgrades on many fronts. A February Wall Street Journal article argued that the electricity transmission system – some of which was constructed just after World War II – is suffering more outages, especially during severe weather events. The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) has concluded that 70 percent of transmission and distribution lines are well into the second half of their 50-year lifespans. The ASCE also estimated that by 2029, the U.S. will need $200 billion to strengthen the grid and meet renewable energy goals. And the problems aren’t limited to electric infrastructure.

In May 2021, “the hacking of a gasoline pipeline shut down gas stations along a large portion of the Eastern Seaboard for a week,” Roush said. “The Texas electric grid failure a year ago started with a gas-fired power generation plant that had failed to weatherize its natural gas equipment. The reality is we have to address issues in all of our energy infrastructure and that additional investment is best spent on the electric grid to meet Maryland’s ambitious carbon reduction targets.”