Supply chain delays complicate beneficial electrification efforts

WECCoop News

WEC asks for patience and communication in a time of high demand and low supply

You don’t need a Level 2 charger unless your daily mileage exceeds what a Level 1 can do overnight. – Bill Powell

You’ve been on the list for 18 months, and you’re finally about to pick up your electric vehicle. There’s just one hitch. You learned from WEC’s operations staff that you don’t have enough electric capacity to install a Level 2 EV charger, and you need a larger transformer. And right now, there’s a shortage of electric distribution equipment.

First of all: thank you for calling the Co-op to check your capacity. You saved time, money, and supplies by contacting WEC first.

The truth is, this is a tough situation. In his recent notice to members, Director of Engineering & Operations Dave Kresock predicted the equipment shortage, exacerbated by storms, could stretch into 2024 [See here for Kresock’s notice to members].

For members transitioning their energy use from fossil to electric, it’s frustrating to have the message suddenly change from “act now” to “wait.” “We’ve been pushing for beneficial electrification for several years now. The last thing we want is to miss opportunities for our members to switch to electric. From a climate standpoint, we need to keep moving away from oil,” said General Manager Louis Porter. “But right now the equipment we need to meet demand is tied up in the supply chain, and our primary responsibility is to keep the power on.”

Members are also likely to run into supply chain issues on the retail side, pointed out Kresock, “such as meter sockets and breaker panels. Electricians are also having difficulty finding equipment for making electrical upgrades within members’ homes.”

Bill Powell, WEC’s Energy Coach, advises keeping the long view. A Level 1 (120 volt) charger is enough to power an EV, he suggests, when it’s used for commuting and can be plugged in overnight. “You don’t need a Level 2 charger unless your daily mileage exceeds what a Level 1 can do overnight,” he said.

In the meantime, WEC is collecting information from members who wish to make elective service upgrades. To signal your interest, contact the Co-op.

Why does WEC have mostly 5 kVA transformers?

In the late twentieth century, Vermont was focused on conserving electricity. This led distribution utilities to “right-size” their service components. When it came to transformer capacity in relation to metered load, WEC was looking for a snug fit – not a roomy fit.

Why? “You may only use the full capacity 20-30% of the time,” explained Bill Powell. “The rest of the time, it’s idling, and that juice is on the Co-op’s dime. To lower that amount of loss, right-sizing the transformer saves {all} members money,” as well as reducing needless use of electricity.

That’s sensible when electric load is stable. But today, with ever-increasing urgency to move away from fossil fuels, electric loads are projected to keep growing.

In addition, WEC is rural, and most Co-op transformers are “one to one,” or connect to only one meter each. In densely populated areas, transformers connect to multiple meters, and are sized larger as a result.

Today, it makes sense that a one to one transformer should have somewhat larger capacity than is currently needed, to allow members to seamlessly add more electric load over time: a Level 2 charger, a heat pump water heater. Installing electric service components, like transformers and wires, with increased capacity is called “future-proofing” for that reason.

Overloaded transformers

Members drawing more power without adding more capacity is a persistent and avoidable problem, said Kresock. It damages the system, and that gets expensive. Members may already know they need a licensed electrician to determine if upgrades are needed for internal wiring or circuit breakers. But members also need to call WEC to make sure they have enough capacity to add devices that add to their electric load. Because if there isn’t enough capacity, blowing a transformer is a bigger problem than blowing a fuse.

Most of the transformers on WEC’s lines are five kilovolt ampere (kVA) transformers. That’s relatively small these days. “They were put in decades ago,” said Kresock.

At that time, Vermont mandated distribution utilities to “right-size” transformers and other equipment, explained Powell, to support energy and cost conservation.

Now, WEC and other distribution utilities are mandated to help customers switch from fossil fuel devices to electric devices as Vermont tries to meet goals to reduce emissions in home heating and transportation outlined in its Renewable Energy Standard. When supply is adequate, this is good for the environment and the Co-op’s members. But when the system is made up of transformers smaller than can handle an increase in load, Kresock said, “we have to go out in the middle of the night to address a blown transformer.”

It’s easy to imagine how this happens. WEC is a winter-peaking utility, meaning members use the most electricity in wintertime. Nights are colder than days; EVs charge during off-peak hours. Even with the lights off and most of your electronics powered down, your heat pump and water heater are working. So when the EV charger kicks on at 2 a.m., you and your neighbors might hear the pop as your transformer explodes.

And while line crews are always on call, unexpected outage restoration in the middle of the night is more expensive than fixes made during daytime working hours. The membership as a whole absorbs those labor costs.

So if you want to add to your electric capacity, now that transformers and other service equipment are in short supply, Kresock and Powell recommend calling WEC now. And be aware there are costs involved: there’s the incremental cost of the larger transformer, and the household upgrades an electrician will need to make in order to increase your capacity from, in most cases, 100 to 200 amps.

This is frustrating for members, Kresock acknowledged. “People don’t necessarily want to pay for upgrades. But it’s not fair to the membership to cover it,” said Kresock.

If all things were equal, it might make sense for the Co-op to raise money through a surcharge to replace everyone’s transformer. But the Co-op’s decision-making is rooted in equity as much as it is in equality. Those members who can afford to purchase new electric vehicles and heat pumps, reasoned Kresock, Powell, and others in WEC leadership, are more likely to be able to afford the system upgrades needed to power those new devices – and that’s fairer than asking fellow members to subsidize those upgrades on their behalf.

WEC is actively engaged with the question of how a cooperative should balance its commitment to equality (everyone has the same access to the same assets) with its commitment to equity (each according to their need.) “It’s something that’s always in front of us as we’re making decisions,” said Board member Betsy Allen.