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Niagara-on-the-Lake
Wednesday, February 1, 2023
Guest Column: The future is electric vehicles and NOTL Hydro is getting ready
Electric vehicles are here to stay, says NOTL Hydro president Tim Curtis. He wants to make sure NOTL’s hydro grid can support the demand for more power. Supplied

Tim Curtis
Special to The Lake Report

Niagara-on-the-Lake Hydro is preparing for big changes in the near future, when electric vehicles dominate and gas-powered cars are a thing of the past.

Within the next decade, the majority of new cars sold are expected to be electric vehicles and NOTL Hydro has been busy preparing to meet the expected power demands of an increase in at-home charging stations.

There will be challenges, but we expect they will be manageable – even if every vehicle in NOTL is an EV.

There is much about this future world we do not yet know (it is in the future, after all) but we can predict that most of the power for all these EVs will come from the electricity grid.

So, we have analyzed how four different parts of the system – local transformer and upstream distribution; NOTL’s access to the province’s transmission grid; the grid itself; and provincial generation – might be affected by the widespread adoption of EVs.

In talking about electricity, it is important to distinguish between how much electricity is used over a period of time (consumption) and how much is used at any one time (demand).

Most of the risk to our hydro system is with too much demand and EV charging overloading the system at a point in time.

For instance, if everybody plugs in their car when they arrive home from work, then what is already the peak demand at around 5 to 6 p.m. will get much worse.

Transformers, those green boxes (for underground systems) and grey cans on the poles (for above ground systems), step down voltage from 16,000 volts to the 120/240 volts used at most houses.

There are over 2,000 of these in Niagara-on-the-Lake and each transformer provides power for up to 12 homes. Transformers are sized and installed on the assumption that an average house uses up to about 4 kW of power at any one time.

But an EV charger uses much more power than the average household as an average level 2 charger can use up to 7 kW.

As well, charging a Tesla puts a greater demand on the system than most other vehicles. At its peak, the combined demand of a house and charger can be more than 17 kW.

If we have several EV chargers operating at the same time, the neighbourhood transformer could be overloaded, causing a local power outage.

And even if NOTL Hydro identifies that a transformer is overloaded, we may not be able to get replacements because electric utilities will all have this issue – and will all be upgrading their transformers at the same time across North America.

We analyzed a number of scenarios depending on how many chargers on a transformer were operating at any one time. The results were promising and we learned the number of transformers at risk of overloading was fewer than expected so it should be manageable.

One of the fortunate reasons for this is that, for many decades, NOTL Hydro has been oversizing its green pad-mounted transformers to meet potential demand from unrealized electric heating and air-conditioning load.

Our analysis also showed most of the transformers at risk are the grey pole-mounted ones. This overloading can be corrected by either replacing the transformer with a larger one or adding an additional transformer to the system and rewiring the local connections.

As the wiring is all overhead, it is much easier than with the underground system.

The upstream distribution system, including low-voltage and high-voltage wiring, also needs to be considered.

NOTL Hydro has specified low-voltage wire to accommodate 200-amp residential services for decades.  Existing 200-amp services are likely able to accommodate the addition of an EV charging station in a residence.

An upgrade might be required if a home needs more than one EV charging station.

Similarly, primary high-voltage wiring has been sized beyond the installed capacity of the equipment serving the community.  In most cases, there is enough room on primary feeders for the additional EV charging load.

However, we do ask that if you buy an EV and install a charging station, please let us know so we can check the local transformer and upgrade it if necessary.

As a result of investments over the past 15 years, NOTL Hydro has significant transformation capacity to take power from the provincial grid and convert it to our local voltages.

In total, we have about 150 MW of transformation capacity and the current peak is around 50 MW.

This extra capacity was put in place to provide a redundant source of power for the whole town but is also available to manage future growth – such as EVs.

Solar power is another potential source of power to service EV charging. Since the province cancelled renewable energy contracts in 2018, the number of new solar installations in NOTL has been limited.

However, as the costs of solar continue to drop, that is changing.

The actual demand for power from the transmission grid has been falling since the 2007-2008 recession and is only now starting to pick up.

As a result, only limited new investments in the transmission system have been required.

While I have the greatest respect for Hydro One’s technical staff, there is a major concern that the combination of NIMBYism, multi-year timelines for projects, regulatory procrastination and bureaucratic inertia could make the transmission grid a chokepoint.

NOTL is fed by a 115 kV line that runs from the Beck power plant, through St. Catharines and eventually connects with a 230 kV line. There is currently some excess capacity available on this line but that can change quickly with growth.

The worry is that if NOTL is competing with the rest of Ontario for upgrades to the transmission grid it might end up lower in the queue.

We analyzed the impact of every vehicle in NOTL becoming electric.  Our estimate, based on some very high-level assumptions, was that the increase in demand would be 25 per cent.

While this is high, it is not extraordinary or unmanageable. Ontario has managed much higher growth in demand for electricity in the past.

One reason why the increase in generation needed is not higher is that electric vehicles are much more energy efficient than those with internal combustion engines. Gas-powered vehicles waste a lot of energy, especially all the excess heat radiating from the engine.

NOTL Hydro is confident it can manage the transition to EVs in NOTL.  No customer should be worried about their ability to charge a new EV – though, again, we do ask you to tell us if you installed an EV charger.

Provincially, there is more of a challenge. It’s not the amount of new electricity but if it is all wanted at the same time.

If the demand for electricity for EV charging largely happens in the late afternoon or early evening, then there is a real danger the transmission system and/or the generation capacity will not be able to cope.

The good news is the Ministry of Energy is fully aware of this and is working to try to address it.

One of their first steps will be the introduction of new, optional rates later in 2023 that will have very, very low rates at night offset by higher rates in the late afternoon peak times.

While the new rates will be optional, if you have an EV, you should look into them. Charging your EV later at night would make it even cheaper to drive.

Beyond that I anticipate there will eventually be spirited discussions as to whether electric utilities will be allowed to restrict the charging of vehicles to certain times to prevent overloading the provincial system.

This could mean giving the utility access to control, limit or program the customer-owned charger, possibly in return for a discount.

Alternatively, it could mean penalties if charging is being done at the peak times or perhaps the optional rates being introduced this year could be imposed.

It will all be about managing the demand for EV charging in the least costly manner.

Tim Curtis is president of NOTL Hydro.

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