Is Vermont’s Grid Ready for Electrification?: A Q&A With Energy Experts | Paid Post | Environment | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice
Brought to you by Efficiency Vermont

Published May 22, 2023 at 10:50 a.m.

Cyril Brunner with his Ford F-150 Lightning and his dogs, Tucker and Dexter - COURTESY
  • Courtesy
  • Cyril Brunner with his Ford F-150 Lightning and his dogs, Tucker and Dexter

When it comes to looking out for the environment, Vermonters are historically ahead of the curve. So it’s no surprise that the state has the highest plug-in electric vehicle adoption rate per capita. EVs are registered in 98 percent of Vermont communities, and the number of EVs in the state increased by 35 percent in the past year, according to Drive Electric Vermont, a public-private partnership working to advance transportation electrification.

It’s clear that many Vermonters are interested in making the switch to an EV, as evidenced by extended wait lists for many popular models. But people have questions about the state’s charging capabilities and infrastructure — and whether the electric grid will be able to handle the growing demand for electric power.

Cyril Brunner, innovation and technology leader at Vermont Electric Coop, likens the state’s electrical grid to a “series of branches on a tree.” These “branches” allow Vermonters to access electricity produced elsewhere — or export locally produced energy all around the region. Utility companies are constantly managing or “balancing” the amount of energy moving through the grid to ensure that production matches consumption at any given moment.

It’s a tricky task, especially given Vermont's aging grid infrastructure, which is already in need of improvements. As more people decrease their reliance on fossil fuels and shift to using electricity for heating and transportation, demand is only going to grow. Vermont utilities are focused on managing these changes.

At Vermont Electric Power Company, it’s Kerrick Johnson’s job as chief innovation and communications officer to anticipate how new technologies such as EVs and heat pumps will affect the grid and what VELCO can do to help create a more sustainable Vermont. 

As Vermont speeds toward broader adoption of these technologies, Johnson puts the state's progress in perspective: “It took about 100 years for all of the infrastructure with combustion engines to get put in place. And now we're trying to do this in 20 years,” he said. “There have been amazing gains, but we have a ways to go.


To chart the state’s progress, and get a preview of the challenges ahead, we asked three efficiency experts — Kerrick Johnson, Cyril Brunner and Dave Roberts from Drive Electric Vermont — what Vermonters need to know about the future of EVs.

The Challenge

VELCO chief innovation and communications officer Kerrick Johnson - CALEB KENNA
  • Caleb Kenna
  • VELCO chief innovation and communications officer Kerrick Johnson

What are the concerns you hear about the grid?

Cyril Brunner
  • Cyril Brunner

Brunner: At Vermont Electric Coop, we get a lot of questions on whether the grid can support a transition to electric power. Additionally, reliability is always at the top of people’s minds. They want to know what we’re doing to keep outages down, especially with folks working from home more now. People also ask us about affordability. In fixed-income or lower-income areas, we pay very close attention to keeping our rates affordable.

Kerrick Johnson
  • Kerrick Johnson

Johnson: People often ask if the grid can handle the additional load. They wonder why we want to add that load when the system may not be reliable. Also, they wonder if it’s even possible to build up to a transition to using more electric power.

Why are there concerns about the grid’s ability to handle EVs/increased demand?

Brunner: There’s stress about grid stability in other states, like California and Texas, where there have been blackouts. In New England, there’s lots of media attention on natural gas supplies, and the risks shortages may cause. Outages from major storms are increasing, and when the lights go out, people think, What if I had an EV and it couldn’t charge right now? What if my heat pump couldn’t keep the house warm?

What are the consequences of the grid not being able to support demand?

Brunner: It can range. It can be from as simple as being unable to charge your car to as severe as turning off sections of the system. In the worst-case scenario, we could see blackouts.

Johnson: If we can’t support the demand, people will revert back to hydrocarbon-based energy, and it will undermine our ability to transition to more electric power. Three of the four worst storms in Vermont’s history were last winter, so the climate crisis is here, and not being ready could halt our ability to do something about that.

Ready to Drive Electric?

Compare the vehicles that are available in Vermont right now and learn all about cost-saving incentives and charging options.

The Work

What does it mean to “upgrade the grid”?

Cyril Brunner with his Ford F-150 Lightning and his dogs, Tucker and Dexter - COURTESY
  • Courtesy
  • Cyril Brunner with his Ford F-150 Lightning and his dogs, Tucker and Dexter

Brunner: One of the biggest challenges is that to upgrade the grid, we’re replacing the oldest infrastructure, which includes assets from the 1930s. I like to say, “Grandpa’s grid is old, but it still works.” However, these places are more susceptible to issues, and we have to relocate facilities that are now in swamps and forests that were once farmland when they were originally put up.

How are organizations thinking about these solutions?

Brunner: Vermont Electric Coop’s mission is to provide safe, reliable, affordable power. As we try to transition to using all electric power, that mission is what we spend all our time talking about. That’s also true of the rest of the Vermont utility space. The legislature is also focused on it, too, and they’re trying to find ways to mitigate concerns. While the transition is happening fast, it’s not happening so fast that we can’t have solutions prepared.

​​We have a two-pronged approach. The first is on our own infrastructure investments and prioritizing them in areas that need it the most. Second, we are helping manage member assets, like batteries and EV chargers. We provide economic incentives to manage our members chargers so that we can limit costly impacts to the peak.

Johnson: The federal government and state government have a lot of responsibility for putting the policies in place and following the state clean energy policies.

We are working on implementing better data sharing throughout our grid. VELCO is currently building a fiber-optic system of renewable generators and batteries that connect directly. Fiber optics transmit information as pulses of light through strands of fiber made of glass or plastic over long distances, improving the quality of the data we are able to collect. VELCO works with industry partners to maintain a long-range plan for Vermont's power grid to ensure we can meet demand and have ample time to make any necessary improvements.

Ready to Drive Electric?

Compare the vehicles that are available in Vermont right now and learn all about cost-saving incentives and charging options.

What are the barriers you see?

Brunner: In utility infrastructure, there’s always another challenge to invest in, so it’s about managing our priorities and resources. We have to be methodical in our approach. We are also really focused on about education and making sure that members know what programs are available to them.

Johnson: Oh, there are a lot, like financial resources, rules, people’s appetite for risk when it comes to making a big change. All of these things can create challenges.

Where in the state is it most important to upgrade the grid?

Brunner: Lower-populated areas. These are areas where existing infrastructure has been adequate for a long time, but we have new load growth. They’ve seen less growth and are at the end of the power system. That’s in the short term, but as load growth continues we’ll want to keep working our way up the system. Right now, we’re focusing on where the most need is.

Johnson: At VELCO, we see the most important place to be the intersection of the Northeast Kingdom and Chittenden County. There's been a long-existing electrical conflict because the number of people in a relatively small area was not envisioned initially, creating constraints. It’s a tough area to fix, and it needs work. We also need to upgrade any tie-lines we have with neighboring states.

What upgrades have already happened? Are they successful and scalable?

Brunner: We’ve been replacing smaller wires for the past 10 to 15 years and prioritizing how quickly to do that. We’ve also invested in resiliency, so we are doing what we can to relocate power lines.

Johnson: At VELCO, we have added 1,500 miles of fiber-optic cables and will soon add 600 more to connect to over 800 generators. We have also gotten approval for a project to upgrade the lines in Franklin County. Today, with national labs, we are getting smarter on data and how to use tools to manage how the grid is changing. From month to month, people are taking in and brainstorming ideas, and a lot of changes are under way.

The Future

Dave Roberts on the road with Rosalita in his Chevy Bolt - NATALIE STULTZ
  • Natalie Stultz
  • Dave Roberts on the road with Rosalita in his Chevy Bolt

What will be the benefits of a grid that can support the transition to electric power?

Brunner: The biggest benefit is the impact on the climate. That’s what is driving a lot of public policy and strategy. We are trying to reduce carbon, which will hopefully reduce the likelihood of severe storms and climate impacts. We are also talking about the financial benefit. You can reduce the total cost of your energy use with electric power so that your overall energy bills will decrease. Data from Efficiency Vermont shows that many low-income folks have the highest energy cost, so they'll benefit most from this transition.

Johnson: Vermont will be safer from climate impacts, and the cost of living will become more affordable. It will enable Vermont to play a role in measuring up to our responsibility in addressing the climate crisis.

The big question is how fast are people going to buy electric vehicles? How much electrification is going to happen? That’s what drives the investment. That’s why it’s essential to get more out of our data exchange and see how people are using the grid, so we can be more resourceful with what we have. We’ll continue to build the grid, and I think we will see some big upgrades in the next three years.

Dave Roberts
  • Dave Roberts

Roberts: Utilities across the state already have programs to manage additional power required by EVs, and the Vermont Public Utility Commission continues to investigate opportunities to support cost-effective electrification technologies. Shifting charging to off-peak times makes better use of existing grid infrastructure, lowering costs for all Vermonters. In the longer term, EVs can help increase grid resiliency by providing backup power to homes and businesses and even feed power back onto the grid at peak times.

The grid can support greater electricity loads if this demand is spread out and managed. Just like drivers can avoid rush hour traffic by leaving for work earlier or later, EV owners can avoid straining the grid by charging their cars at off-peak times. This can be done by charging cars during periods of the day or night when demand is lower. Fortunately, smart charging technology allows EV owners to harness the existing capacity of the grid by charging when there is surplus capacity. In returning to the traffic analogy, this is the equivalent of strategically spreading the morning commute over multiple hours, both avoiding traffic jams and the need for expensive infrastructure improvements to add additional lanes.

What does the present and future of the grid mean for someone considering an EV?

Brunner: The grid right now is absolutely ready for electric vehicles. We don't see huge constraints today for people that get EVs, and we're completely prepared to support them at the co-op. There are a lot of incentives out there, both federal and state. I have a Ford Lightning, and it was cheaper than the gas version and will be less expensive over its lifetime, too.

Johnson: The grid will be fine. Choose your car carefully and be willing to invest some time into understanding the strategies and costs for ensuring an effective and enjoyable experience. Getting an EV is an investment of your time but, in my opinion, worth it.

Roberts: Vermonters buying an EV should have a charging plan in place before their purchase. Charging at home is usually the most convenient, lowest-cost option. The Drive Electric Vermont website has great resources on vehicle purchase incentives and can steer people to utility EV programs. Many EV owners, especially those with plug-in hybrid models, simply plug into standard home outlets. Stepping up to higher powered “level 2” charging may require additional work to handle the load. A licensed electrician can assess your home and recommend charging options.

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So, while there are big and complex changes coming for the grid as Vermont moves toward using more electric power, the experts are on it. “There’s a lot of energy, time and dollars being put into this,” Brunner said. “We know it’s important, and if we take time to orchestrate how this happens, we can keep from spending a lot of money on infrastructure.” While Vermonters won’t see these changes overnight, “the grid will be ready when the demand arrives,” Johnson said.

Ready to Drive Electric?

Compare the vehicles that are available in Vermont right now and learn all about cost-saving incentives and charging options.

This article was commissioned and paid for by Efficiency Vermont in support of the fight against climate change.