Old power gear is making slow use of clean energy and electric cars

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Old power gear is making slow use of clean energy and electric cars

Seven months after workers installed solar panels above the Garcia family home near Stanford University, the system is little more than a roof ornament. Problem: The local utility’s equipment is so overloaded that the electricity produced by the panels has no place to go.

Theresa Garcia said, “We wasted $30,000 on a system we can’t use.” “It’s been really disappointing.”

President Biden is pushing lawmakers and regulators to move the United States off fossil fuels and combat the effects of climate change. But their ambitious goals could be bolstered by aging transformers and dated power lines, making it harder for homeowners, local governments and businesses to access solar panels, batteries, electric cars, heat pumps and other equipment that builds greenhouses. Can help reduce gas emissions.

Most of the equipment on the electric grid was built decades ago and needs to be upgraded. It was designed for a world in which electricity flowed in one direction – from the grid to the people. Now, homes and businesses are increasing their supply of energy to the grid with their rooftop solar panels.

These problems have become more urgent as the fastest way to cut greenhouse gas emissions is to move machinery, cars and heating equipment that currently runs on oil and natural gas from solar, wind, nuclear and other zero-emissions energy sources. Run in the generated electricity. Yet the grid is far from capable of powering everything that could help offset the effects of climate change, energy experts said.

“This is a perfect violent storm as far as we’re going to meet demand,” said Michael Johnston, executive director of codes and standards for the National Electrical Contractors Association. “It’s no small problem.”

Ms. Garcia and her husband, Quinn, bought their home in Portola Valley a year ago. They invested in solar power because Ms. Garcia, a 37-year-old biotech lawyer, and her husband, a venture capitalist, wanted to do their part to fight climate change.

Garcia is not a pioneer. According to the California Solar and Storage Association, nearly one in 10 utility customers in the state has solar power.

So, Garcia was surprised when his utility, Pacific Gas & Electric, wouldn’t allow him to use the panels entirely.

The problem is that on sunny days, rooftop solar panels can produce a lot more electricity than is used in the neighborhood where they are installed. This can overload electrical transformers, which help regulate and direct the flow of electricity within neighborhoods, forcing them to shut down or blow out. Such problems can be avoided by installing new transformers with higher capacity.

Barry Cinnamon, chief executive of Cinnamon Energy Systems, the panel company that installed Garcia’s home, said such problems are very common. “My experience and understanding of the way utilities go, they just wait until the neighborhood is overloaded and then the transformer blows up,” said Mr. Cinnamon.

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PG&E expressed regret for the delay in upgrading transformers outside the Garcia home, noting that it could take up to six months to do so if workers are added to the projects.

During a heat wave in August 2020, an old transformer at an electrical substation in downtown San Jose is about 25 miles from where Garcia lives. It darkened the homes of thousands of people, for a few days.

City Mayor Sam Licardo expressed frustration with PG&E, saying the company’s outdated equipment was hindering San Jose’s plan to increase the use of solar panels, electric cars and other new equipment. To achieve its climate goals, the city has already banned the use of natural gas in new buildings, the largest local government in the country to do so.

“This is an infrastructure that is failing,” Mr Licardo, a Democrat, said. “We are very ambitious. The question is, will there be a grid ready when we get there.

Mark Esguera, senior director of electric asset strategy at PG&E, said the company plans to upgrade many more of its equipment. Since the failure in San Jose last year, the company has replaced 400 transformers in and around that city, out of a total of 62,000 in Santa Clara County. The company said it supports the use of solar panels by its approximately 600,000 residential customers and 360,000 customers owned electric cars.

“We know our grid is going to look different in a few years,” Mr Esguera said.

The big challenge for policymakers and the utility industry is figuring out how quickly to invest in the grid while keeping energy economical.

It will cost hundreds of billions of dollars to upgrade distribution networks across the country to meet the country’s clean energy goals, said Ben Hertz-Schargel, global head of Grid Edge, a division of Wood Mackenzie, a research and consulting firm. This does not include expenses on long-distance transmission lines and electricity-generating equipment such as solar and wind farms.

Mr. Hertz-Schargel has personal experience with the shortcomings of the electric grid. When he was recently charging a Tesla at his home on Long Island, the electrical equipment that connects the utility’s power line to his home got so hot that it melted.

“I’m the only EV on my block and even modest use was enough to overwhelm the secondary side of the grid at my house,” he said. “It just shows how many weak links there are in the utility distribution system.”

How much money utilities spend on their equipment is determined in a complex process that involves state regulators who have to approve increases in electricity rates that pay for upgrades.

State officials don’t want to raise rates too much because it harms consumers and could undermine public support for clean energy, said Abigail Anthony, a utility regulator in Rhode Island who chairs a committee. which studies these issues at the National Association of Regulatory Utilities. Commissioner.

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“Not only do cars and heating systems need to be affordable, but fuels, electricity, especially oil, need to be cheaper than gasoline and natural gas,” Ms Anthony said.

Those pushing for more investment say saving people money on monthly bills and curbing the worst effects of climate change will pay off.

Consider the following example: If all 330,000 households in San Jose quit using gasoline and natural gas and switched to electric cars, heat pumps, and electric water heaters and stoves, the city would use three times as much electricity as That is now, according to Rewiring America, a non-profit group that advocates for grid upgrades and policies to fight climate change.

But the money San Jose residents and businesses spend on electricity does not necessarily triple or double, the group argues. This is because people can generate some electricity through rooftop solar panels and store that energy in household batteries. Sam Calish, head of research at Rewiring America, said they could install smart thermostats and appliances to use electricity at night for less cost.

Emily Fisher, senior vice president for clean energy at the Edison Electric Institute, a utility industry trade group, gave another example. Mr Biden wants half of the new cars sold in the country to be electric cars by 2030. If all those cars are plugged in during the day, when energy use is high, utilities will have to spend a lot more on upgrades. But if regulators allowed more utilities to offer lower electricity rates at night, people would charge cars when there was a lot of spare capacity.

Some businesses are already looking for ways to rely less on the grid when demand is high. Electrify America, a subsidiary of Volkswagen that operates the electric vehicle charging network, has installed larger batteries at some charging stations to avoid paying fees to businesses that draw a lot of electricity.

Robert Barrosa, senior director of sales and marketing at Electrify America, said eventually the company can help utilities by taking power when it’s too much and supplying it when it’s not enough.

Ultimately, electrifying cars, heaters, stoves and other appliances that currently run on fossil fuels can save an average family $1,050 to $2,585 per year, according to Rewiring America. Those products are more energy efficient and electricity costs less than comparable amounts of gasoline, heating oil, and natural gas. Electric cars and equipment are also cheap to maintain.

“Well, the money could go towards a more reliable network,” said Mr. Calish, “especially in the face of increasing stress from climate change.”

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