The proposal has been met with backlash as environmentalists and residents argue there is a more sustainable approach to updating the grid.

A substation proposed by Pepco has become a focal point of the grid modernization debate in Washington, D.C. and could be the turning point in how the nation’s capital handles its electric power.

The proposal comes as the grid modernization debate is heating up across the country and for the district could also lead to a first-of-its-kind independent regulatory body that would take over some utility planning functions.

“One of the big questions is what role the utility will play,” Karl Rabago, an energy consultant hired to support some of the environmental groups active in the case, told Utility Dive. Utilities have immense market power, but “will they be able to get out of the way to allow an independent process to move forward?”

Modernizing D.C.’s grid

Pepco’s application to the District of Columbia Public Service Commission (DC PSC) for its Capital Grid project includes the refurbishment of three existing substations and the building of a new substation in the district’s Mt. Vernon neighborhood at a total cost of $851 million, including work in Maryland.

On a separate track, the DC PSC is in the midst of a process aimed at modernizing the District’s grid. The goal of the process, Modernizing the Energy Delivery System for Increased Sustainability (MEDSIS), is to increase sustainability for consumers and make the energy delivery system more reliable, efficient, cost effective and interactive.

“One of the big questions is what role the utility will play. … Will they be able to get out of the way to allow an independent process to move forward?”

Karl Rabago

Consultant

The MEDSIS process arose as a response to protests over another Pepco substation. In 2014, the Sierra Club asked the PSC to consider non-wires alternatives to large utility investments, but the commission declined to do that during an ongoing ratemaking proceeding with Pepco. In 2015, DC Climate Action and the Advisory Neighborhood Commission pushed the PSC to consider non-wires alternatives to Pepco’s proposed Waterfront substation in the Buzzard Point section of the District.

The PSC declined to take up that request as part of the substation approval process but said it would open a docket to establish a working group that could address “in a more global way the future outlook for energy growth,” including the feasibility of more energy storage and increased generation distribution.

Meanwhile, the PSC approved — and Pepco built — the Waterfront substation, while the MEDSIS process led to the creation of working groups to study the issues, resolutions to define the terms of the debate and the hiring of the Smart Electric Power Alliance (SEPA) as a consultant on the process.

With the MEDSIS process still under way, Pepco in May 2017 filed with the PSC for approval of more substation investments as part of its Capital Grid project.

Noting that the district is experiencing its highest population growth in four decades, Pepco said the Capital Grid project will “address current and future energy needs,” help build grid resilience to withstand and recover from events such as severe storms, and help the District reach its goal of generating half its electricity from renewable sources by 2032.

The Capital Grid project, however, is receiving pushback from environmental advocates, local residents and even the district’s Department of Energy & Environment (DOEE).