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California’s Grid Isn’t Ready for Fully Electrified Homes

Silicon Valley’s electric grid was built around household energy needs from more than 50 years ago, making it incapable of supporting the region’s switch to electric dependency as a way to offset greenhouse gas emissions.

(TNS) — One out of every six homes in this leafy birthplace of Silicon Valley has a plug-in car, with more to come. Other homes have heat pumps, induction cook tops and arrays of glistening solar panels that help reduce climate change.

Yet yesterday’s electrical grid can’t keep up with tomorrow’s carbon-free ambitions.

“We’re in a ‘ramp up’ mode. We won’t hit our goals unless we accelerate,” said Mayor Pat Burt, who drives a plug-in hybrid Mitsubishi Outlander. “But we really don’t have the capacity to do it faster than we’ve been doing it. That’s the crunch.”

It is a harbinger of what is to come in other California cities. As Berkeley, San Jose and a growing number of other communities commit to an all-electric future, their transformers and distribution lines are being sorely challenged by the need to deliver much more power. Los Angeles is also proposing to study what is needed to modernize its power grid infrastructure.

In Palo Alto, the grid of this entire city was built around the electrical needs of the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s, not long after Hewlett-Packard was conceived in a small wooden garage on Addison Avenue, giving birth to what became a transformational tech revolution.

At that time, few had electric heating or air conditioning. Water heaters used gas. So did cars. An entire home consumed as much electricity, per day, as a single high-speed EV car charge.

Even in this progressive and affluent city of 68,000 – home to Google co-founder Larry Page, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Apple CEO Tim Cook and Tesla’s former director of battery technology Kurt Kelty – the challenge is enormous.

The city, which supplies electricity to residents and businesses through its own utilities, is already carbon-neutral, buying carbon offsets to balance its emissions from natural gas use. It buys its power from solar, hydroelectric, wind and landfill gas sources.

But it has vowed, in only eight years, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent below 1990 levels.

This all-electric goal means every new single-family home is gas-free, as well as a mass conversion from gas to electric appliances in existing buildings. Natural gas would be shut off, either by disconnecting the service to each individual home or sealing the valves to the mains that serve an entire block. There is no information on whether the city will offer grants or subsidies to homeowners who cannot afford the upgrades.

Eight out of 10 cars would be EVs. Two years ago, Palo Alto had an estimated 4,200 charging stations – but that number is projected to jump to 33,000 by 2030.

It can keeping doing what it’s doing now, upgrading block by block as problems appear. Or it can modernize the entire grid, whole neighborhoods or circuits at a time. A study is underway analyze the upgrades that would be required.

“We have these aspirational goals … but the practical steps to get there are really complicated and involve a lot of difficult choices,” said city Councilmember A.C. Johnston, a retired intellectual property attorney.

The city is already retrofitting some buildings to gain experience. In a partnership with the affordable housing nonprofit MidPen Housing, the city recently capped off gas valves and installed a heat pump system at Page Mill Court apartments, a 24-unit complex for adults with developmental disabilities.

“It’s better,” said Alfred Bostic, 72, whose large gas wall furnace was replaced with a cleaner, more efficient and less expensive electric space heater. For the first time, he has air conditioning.

Time is of the essence, said Bret Andersen of Carbon Free Palo Alto. Devices like water and space heaters last a long time – so today’s installations have long-term implications.

Rather than ad hoc updates, “it must be done in a systematic way … once electrification starts to become very widespread,” said retired engineer and physicist Peter Cross, who built an all-electric home.

So far, the city’s greenhouse gas emissions have dropped 50 percent from 1990 levels, said Jonathan Abendschein, the city’s assistant director for utilities resource management. When adjusted for pandemic-related impacts, it’s closer to 42 percent.

“That means we have a significant distance to go,” he said.

Existing transformers, the white 500-pound cylinders that sit atop poles and downsize power from high-voltage lines, are often too small. So are some wires and poles, he said. Even rooftop solar and battery storage units can create problems because when they produce more electricity than used, they overload transformers.

“There are places even today where we can’t even take one more heat pump without having to rebuild the portion of the system. Or we can’t even have one EV charger go on,” said Tomm Marshall, assistant director of utilities, at a recent meeting of the city’s Utilities Advisory Committee.

“If we go out and begin heavily promoting electrification … we’re going to be just chasing our tail trying to keep up,” he said.

When a transformer is overloaded, its life is shortened. Residents may experience a slight flickering of power. In the worst-case scenario, it explodes.

Modernizing the entire grid, quickly, is cheaper in the long run, but there’s a big upfront cost: about $160 million, by one preliminary estimate. If financed over 30 years at an interest rate of 3.2 percent, it would cost about $11 million a year.

It means replacing virtually all of the 800 transformers that serve single-family homes, using experienced linemen and “bucket trucks.” More transformers might be added. An estimated 20 percent of secondary distribution lines and 25 percent of feeder lines also would need upgrades. Some poles may need to be stronger. Newly introduced technologies would enable power to flow in different directions.

And because the whole city will rely on electricity, new controls, fuses and detection systems are needed to make the grid more resilient and quicker to restore, said Abendschein.

In addition to cost, this poses several major challenges. Due to supply chain problems, there aren’t enough transformers. And competition is fierce for energy engineers and linemen, who have special skill sets and years of training. Even before the planned scaleup, 18 of 68 positions in the city’s electrical operation and 5 of 15 linemen jobs are empty.

Some residents believe the new goals are being put into action too quickly.

“The 2030 timing is too early,” said resident Diana Diamond. “Haste does make waste. … The problem I envision is that getting rid of gas stoves, gas water heaters and getting rid of our gas vehicles, we may find that we simply don‘t have enough available electricity in town each day, which could result in that dark word, ‘blackouts.’”

But others urge an overhaul. “We need total modernization,” said Ben Lenail, whose family owns Model S and Model X Teslas. “And that means a huge investment in infrastructure.”

“It is definitely forward-thinking,” said Stanford professor of civil and environmental engineering Mark Jacobson. “It’s going to take some work to figure out exactly the right recipe.”

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