PLUGGING IN: How is Marblehead preparing its power grid for the electric-vehicle boom?

As electric vehicles (EVs) gain traction in Marblehead, the town’s officials are taking proactive measures to ensure the local power grid can accommodate the growing demand.

Across Massachusetts, communities face a state mandate to cut carbon emissions by 80% by 2050. Widespread EV adoption is a key strategy, aiming for at least 900,000 electric cars on state roadways by 2030.

‘10 years is really tomorrow’

“EVs are coming. How quickly are they going to come? That is the question,” said Jean Jacques Yarmoff, a Marblehead Municipal Light Department commissioner focused on the town’s energy future. “But for the light department and utilities across the country, 10 years is really tomorrow.”

Marblehead is no exception and faces the challenge of reinforcing an aging municipal power grid originally built for a fossil fuel world. Central to MMLD’s plans is a new $8 million substation that distributes electricity. It is scheduled for completion in 2024. This larger replacement will boost capacity by 50%, providing a critical power source as EVs multiply. (MMLD asked us not to mention the location of the substation in town.)

Marblehead Light Commissioner Lisa Wolf stands outside her net-zero home with her garage up, revealing her Tesla. CURRENT PHOTO / LEIGH BLANDER

“We clearly know from an overall energy point of view, we want to have this substation online in the next couple of years to handle that future anticipated growth,” said Joseph Kowalik, general manager of MMLD. It is expected to accommodate a 20% to 30% spike in electricity demand over the next decade as EVs join the local fleet.

Currently, Marblehead has 463 electric passenger cars, a fraction of the vehicles in town. To meet the 2030 state target, Marblehead likely needs a total of about 6,000 EVs deployed.

For drivers, the most convenient EV fueling takes place overnight at home. Owners plug their cars into a 240-volt outlet, known as a level 2 charger, typically installed in the garage by an electrician. Within four to six hours, the battery recharges for daily commuting needs.

While public charging infrastructure gradually expands, most EV owners still opt to refuel at home when possible, shifting the infrastructure burden onto strained local grids. Municipal utilities like MMLD purchase electricity from regional power generators and distribute it to residents and businesses through neighborhood wires and transformers.

Kowalik compares the power distribution system to a series of “bags” with varying capacity. Overloading equipment risks failure, much like overstuffing a bag. MMLD constantly monitors hundreds of transformers townwide to prevent overflow.

An electric vehicle charging station at the Mary Alley Municipal Building, a sign of Marblehead’s efforts to expand EV infrastructure and meet sustainability goals. CURRENT PHOTO / WILLIAM J. DOWD

However, Kowalik said the department is planning for increased demand in the future as more residents purchase EVs. Marblehead’s electricity comes into town at high voltage and is stepped down by transformers before being distributed to homes and businesses. There are around 1,100 transformers in Marblehead, each serving about 10 customers on average.

Kowalik emphasized the importance of managing demand by encouraging off-peak EV charging, minimizing costs for both customers and the municipal light department. If upgrades become necessary in a particular neighborhood, MMLD can reroute connections to spread the electrical load.

“It used to take six weeks to get a new transformer, and now it takes almost a year,” he said. “So everybody’s carefully watching their transformers.”

The transformers are analog devices with a rated capacity. If demand exceeds that capacity over time, it can shorten the life of a transformer.

‘What we need is visibility’

To get ahead of increased EV demand, the department plans to work on an electric vehicle process to include an agreement to charge during certain times when a resident installs EV charging equipment.

“What we need is visibility on where the increased demand is going to come from ahead of time,” said Kowalik.

To stay ahead, MMLD plans to formalize a residential interconnection review process when homeowners install EV chargers. MMLD also seeks to motivate customers to charge EVs overnight when overall demand is lower.

“We want people to be smart and say the flatter we can make our demand, the more economical we can run our system,” he said.

Marblehead Light Commissioner Simon Frechette said EV adoption will be critical for Marblehead to achieve its goal of net-zero carbon emissions by 2040.

A chart showing transportation emissions as Marblehead’s largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. SUSTAINABLE MARBLEHEAD

Frechette said his first EV was a Tesla Roadster, calling it “one of the first all-electric cars ever built.”

When asked about challenges, Frechette recounted a time he ran out of battery: “I was down to like one mile when I was at Whole Foods.”

However, Frechette said day-to-day range is not an issue: “How often are you making trips that exceed 350 miles? Not often.” On benefits, Frechette touted performance, pointing out they can be quite fun, too.

EVs have “unbelievable torque” and acceleration. “I couldn’t stop laughing because it’s so fast — 0 to 60 in 4.5 seconds.”

On Beacon Hill, policymakers continue pushing for rapid statewide EV adoption. A 2021 state climate law requires Massachusetts to cut its overall emissions by 50% below 1990 levels within eight years.

Electric vehicle equity

In Marblehead, around 80% of households have a driveway or private parking where installing EV chargers is straightforward. But options narrow significantly for residents who park on the street or live in condos.

“As a town, we have to plan together so we can support people in the transition,” said Frechette.

A home EV charging station, an increasingly common sight in Marblehead as the town aims for a sustainable future. CURRENT PHOTO / JESSICA BARNETT

Despite complexities, the upside for Marblehead remains immense. Widespread EV adoption represents the fastest and most cost-effective way to slash the transportation sector’s sizable carbon emissions.

In Marblehead, transportation accounts for a significant portion of greenhouse gas emissions, making up 29% of the town’s total emissions, according to a 2018 Greenhouse Gas Inventory Report prepared by Sustainable Marblehead. The report identifies transportation as the largest source of emissions in the community, underscoring the need for targeted efforts to reduce its carbon footprint.

To achieve the town’s net-zero goals, MMLD currently sources about 43% of its power from non-carbon emitting and renewable generation like wind, nuclear and hydroelectric power. It aims to hit at least 70% by 2030.

“We have to get off fossil fuels — it’s just how you go about it affordably without lowering your quality of life,” said Yarmoff. “People need to know when they flip the switch, the power is there.”

A team effort

Outside of the MMLD’s purview, Marblehead town officials are adopting a collaborative strategy, said Select Board member Alexa Singer.

Singer, who owns and has owned multiple EVs and hybrids, noted a pivotal element of the town’s EV initiatives is the 2023 Town Meeting having created a sustainability coordinator position. This new role — which has yet to be filled or posted — is responsible for leading the development of policies related to EVs and other eco-friendly programs, Singer said.

“All of this is really a collaborative approach,” said Singer. “But building capacity, that’s an essential part of meeting our net-zero goals,” Singer said, alluding to the town’s climate action plan.

The sustainability coordinator’s duties will include policy coordination and acting as an interdepartmental liaison, Singer elaborated. She said the sustainability coordinator will spearhead research into state and federal incentives.

“What are the incentives? What are the grants — if we’re looking at increasing municipal fleets? How do we get additional funding to help offset those costs?” Singer said.

Existing town and housing bylaws may require amendments to accommodate the installation of personal EV chargers.

“Each department plays a part in moving this forward,” Singer emphasized.

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1 Comment

  • David Kessel

    A problem with the electric vehicle is that charging stations are rare in certain regions. For those who live in Marblehead, this is not a problem because nobody would want to go anywhere except perhaps Boston or Maine and this could be done on a single charge. For those who live in Oklahoma or Texas or other such places, this could be a problem. But those people will likely never abandon gasoline.

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