As electric vehicles (EVs) transition from a futuristic notion to an everyday reality, Marblehead is grappling with a challenge: how to adapt its aging electrical grid to accommodate the inevitable rise of EVs. Of nearly 20,000 registered vehicles in Marblehead, around 460 are electric. That number is expected to increase significantly in the years to come.
But already — even with 2.3% of its vehicles electric ones — Marblehead is ahead of the curve in being “early adopters” of the technology. Statewide, there are about 90,000 electric passenger vehicles registered in the state, according to auto industry data, which is 1.6% of the 5.6 million cars and light trucks on the road. But the direction of the trend is unmistakable.
The Marblehead Municipal Light Department is predicting a 20% to 30% rise in the demand for electricity 2030 due to the increase in EVs. An $8 million upgrade of its Village 13 substation is underway, with completion aimed for 2024. This will boost the substation’s capacity by 50%, offering a vital power source for the growing fleet of EVs.
However, the town’s existing electrical infrastructure, designed for a fossil-fuel past, risks becoming overwhelmed. Among the 1,100 distribution transformers, many may need an upgrade to handle the surge in EV charging, especially given supply chain challenges affecting maintenance.
“Electric vehicles are here to stay,” says Jean-Jacques Yarmoff, who as a light commissioner has focused on long-term utility strategy. “We have to prepare now; the future is almost upon us.”
But upgrading infrastructure isn’t the sole answer. The town is also promoting off-peak charging to alleviate system strain. MLD’s “managed charging” program, for example, provides free chargers to residents who agree to limit their EV charging during peak hours.
Addressing the needs of “garage orphans” — or residents without home charging access — is also vital. Public curbside chargers and updated housing policies are among the solutions. Guidelines could be established by officials to promote the installation of EV charging stations in condos and rented properties, while also taking into account and alleviating the concerns of landlords and residents who object to such installations.
“Our commitment is to the entire community,” says MMLD General Manager Joseph Kowalik. “Sustainability, affordability and reliability must all be balanced.”
Transparency will be crucial as the town juggles competing priorities. While rate increases may be inevitable, federal grants and state rebates present opportunities to soften the financial impact on residents.
Despite its challenges, the move toward electric vehicles would seem to be inevitable, especially given the urgency of climate change. Marblehead is aiming to achieve zero carbon emissions by 2040, and a significant reduction in transportation-related pollution is a big part of the plan.
Through proactive and equitable planning, Marblehead stands the best chance of entering the electric vehicle age smoothly and inclusively.
The Current Editorial Board
The members of the Current’s editorial board are Ed Bell, who serves as chairman, and Virginia Buckingham, both members of the Current’s board of directors; Kris Olson and Will Dowd, members of the Current’s editorial staff; and Robert Peck and Joseph P. Kahn. Peck is an attorney, former chairman of Marblehead’s Finance Committee and a former Select Board member. Kahn is a retired Boston Globe journalist.