Con Edison Says It Is Cut Out To Lead The Carbon-Free Transition

Con Edison Says It Is Cut Out To Lead The Carbon-Free Transition


New York State just forced the closure of Exelon Corp.’s

EXC
last remaining nuclear power unit at Indian Point — a facility that generated 1,040 megawatts near the heart of Manhattan. And now, three natural gas plants have replaced that energy. Just how does this play into the state’s net-zero goal by 2040?

To get there, the state and its utilities realize that they will have to electrify their transport and heating sectors, all of which will add stress to the electric network. At the same time, utilities have invested heavily in smart grids and smart metering — technologies that allow for the more efficient use of electricity. Energy efficiency and demand response tools, meanwhile, are critical when it comes to refitting older buildings. And together they are trying to advance green hydrogen, renewable natural gas, and carbon capture as well as microgrids and battery storage. 

“We are planning for climate change and for how it will impact our delivery systems,” says Tim Cawley, chief executive of Consolidated Edison during a web event on Tuesday hosted by OurEnergyPolicy. Demand will shift from summers to winters — from when air conditions are in full force to when heating systems will be on, all to comport with the goal of electrification.

To deal with the added burden on the grid, Cawley says that the utilities will incentivize electric vehicle owners to charge at night. Indeed, he expects the number of electric vehicles to rise by a factor of 10 by 2025. To that end, Con Ed

ED
ison will allocate $350 million to help building owners install hundreds of slow-charging stations — if they agree to open them up to the general public. The utility is also investing in New York City’s buildings sector, which is the biggest source of the city’s pollution: $1.5 billion now — a figure that will triple by 2030. 

As part of the state’s electricity restructuring pursuit in 2000, utilities were forced to sell off their electric generation and to focus on their transmission systems — intended to facilitate competition and to lead to the greater use of green energy. But Cawley says that the utilities could build green plants that last 30 years instead of having to buy renewables in the form of 20-year power purchase agreements.

New York State is also requiring its utilities to provide 50% of their electricity from renewables by 2030. And it is investing $1.65 billion in green energy and energy efficiency. The state, for example, has an offshore wind project under review. If it is doable, it will generate 2,400 megawatts by 2030. 

Distributed Resources

Now that President Biden is in charge, climate talks are heating up and as such, microgrids are getting attention. Those localized networks are delivering electric service in remote and defined areas. Microgrids are a disruptive technology — not only because they use onsite generation, but also because they’re often fueled by rooftop solar panels with battery storage.

Microgrids have the potential to benefit both electricity providers and consumers. They seek to beef up cybersecurity, reduce emissions, and cut costs for utilities. Consumers, meanwhile, can get a clean, reliable delivery mechanism. They gained credence after Superstorm Sandy ransacked New York State in 2012 and left thousands without power. As it happens, a state initiative is now focused on increasing the use of onsite generation, microgrids, and energy storage. In the words of the New York Power Authority, the aim is to “fundamentally transform” how energy is generated and distributed in the state.

“Microgrids can contribute,” says a more subdued Cawley. “They can serve a role from a resiliency standpoint. But there has to be a right fit to make a lot of sense. There are places where they do make a lot of sense. We are using storage to supplement the grid and trying to shave a few megawatts. The economics of storage is still a bit challenging. But it will scale and there will be more players.”

Battery storage, meanwhile, can displace peaker plants, or those generation facilities built to serve high demand. Those plants sit idle much of the time, making them inefficient and expensive. But battery storage can relieve grid pressures during such peak periods, which means that utilities do not have to procure expensive power or build new peaker plants. Utilities, for example, can signal homeowners or businesses that they are expecting high energy usage. Those storage owners would then have the option to release electrons from their storage devices, thus saving the power companies money.

Closing the Gap

What about green hydrogen and renewable natural gas? Or for that matter carbon capture? Cawley says that none of those applications have reached scale and thus, they are not now economic. But he says that some “smart minds” are dedicated to moving those technologies forward. 

For its part, renewable natural gas is produced from any organic material found in landfills, sewage treatment, or bio-digesters. While such fuel is now mostly used in the transport sector, it can also be used to heat homes and businesses. The city of Phoenix, Ariz. is taking raw biogas produced at its wastewater treatment plant and cleaning it before it is compressed and injected in natural gas pipelines — as opposed to sending it into the atmosphere.

But it takes energy to transform the biogas. And right now, that conversion process is expensive, making renewable natural gas more costly than natural gas. “We will leave it on the table as we work toward net-zero,” says Con Ed’s Cawley. 

He is particularly keen on green hydrogen, which is produced from wind and solar energies. Given that the global goal is to limit temperature increases and to hit net-zero targets by 2050, the utility executive says that this technology has promise. Think back to 1990 and compare that to today’s energy picture. Now look forward 30 years, says Cawley. We’ve come a long way and more progress is necessary — especially to narrow the cost difference between hydrogen and natural gas.

“Green hydrogen is clearly on the table. At Con Ed, we really want to close that gap,” the energy executive insists. “There is more investment today in green hydrogen than in the prior 20 years. It is about getting that technology to scale and finding the best uses for it.”  

Con Edison has its work cut out for it. The utility, for example, has received approval to invest $3 billion to construct new natural gas pipelines. While it fully supports clean energy goals, it says that it is still charged with providing reliable service to its 1.1 million gas customers.

About 70% of the largest U.S. electric and gas utilities are striving to be carbon neutral, says S&P Global Market Intelligence — each with the same charter. Among the other utilities trying to get ahead of the low-carbon movement are Alliant

LNT
, Amere

AEE
n, American Electric Powe

AEP
r, Avisa, CenterPoint Energy

CNP
, Dominion Energy, Eversource Energy

ES
, Exelon Corp., PG&E Corp., PPL Corp.

PPL
, Sempra Energ

SRE
y, Southern Company

SCCO
, the TVA, and Xcel Energy

XEL

New York’s job of hitting its CO2 reduction goals is harder because of the loss of Indian Point, although the state still has 3,200 megawatts of nuclear capacity at three plants upstate. But its all-in approach to new technologies and green energies will serve as a test case for other states. As for Con Ed, it says that this is what it is made for — that it is “uniquely positioned to lead.

“This is our way forward,” says Cawley. “This is where we will make our mark.”



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