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The East Coast and Midwest Are Going to Need More Electricity

What do data centers, EVs, and new semiconductor plants have in common?

Power lines.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

We’re gonna need a bigger electricity generation system. That’s what PJM Interconnection, the massive electricity market spanning 13 states on the East Coast and in the Midwest, said in a report Monday.

PJM predicted that its peak electricity demand would increase every year by 1.7% in the summer and 2% in the winter. It also anticipates overall energy use to grow 2.4% annually over the next decade — an increase of 200,000 gigawatt-hours, or roughly 25%, by 2034.

That increase in demand is also about three times a previous forecast, according to Utility Dive. PJM attributes the big jump to a few factors, calling out specifically data centers, new manufacturing plants, and more electrification, especially of transportation.

The PJM forecast provides a case study for the challenges the Biden administration faces as it pursues the twin goals of lowering emissions and decarbonizing the electricity sector, along with trying to revive American manufacturing.

In order to reduce emissions, you can’t just replace fossil fuel-burning power plants with renewable and non-carbon energy sources. Everything else that emits carbon has to be decarbonized as well, including transportation, which makes up about 30% of emissions.

But doing this increases demand for electricity — a car that used to be powered by igniting gasoline is now powered by a battery that has to be charged. Electrification will put even more pressure on non-carbon power generation: not only do some combination of solar panels, wind turbines, nuclear power plants, dams and steam have to replace existing electricity demand, it has to make up for that new demand as well.

While there are ways to moderate this demand — you can pay consumers to use less electricity at peak times and have electric car batteries work as power supply for homes, for example — a world where electric power replaces combustion will mean we need to find more electricity.

That’s no small task. There are about 500,000 electric cars in the PJM area and the projection is that there will be 23 million by the end of the next decade, while the number of medium and heavy-duty electric vehicles will increase from 25,000 to 1.5 million, according to PJM’s forecast.

And then there’s new sources of electricity demand that have nothing to do with electrification, like, say, a new semiconductor plant outside Columbus, Ohio, being built by Intel or data centers in Maryland.

Right now, PJM’s existing electric load is serviced by a relatively dirty grid that’s over half coal and natural gas (although one third also comes from nuclear). PJM, like many electricity markets, has expressed worries about how retiring fossil fuel plants could impact the reliability of the grid as a whole. The new forecast “underscores the need to maintain and develop enough generation resources to serve that growing demand,” PJM’s senior vice president for planning Kenneth Seiler said in a statement.

Matthew Zeitlin

Matthew is a correspondent at Heatmap. Previously he was an economics reporter at Grid, where he covered macroeconomics and energy, and a business reporter at BuzzFeed News, where he covered finance. He has written for The New York Times, the Guardian, Barron's, and New York Magazine. Read More

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Future Chicken.
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