Seven months after workers finished installing solar panels on top of the Garcia family home near Stanford University, the system is more than just a roof decoration. The problem: The equipment of local utility companies is so overloaded that there is no room for the electricity produced by the panels.
“We wasted $30,000 on a system we couldn’t use,” said Theresa Garcia. “It’s just really frustrating.”
President Biden is pushing lawmakers and regulators to remove the United States from fossil fuels and combat the effects of climate change. But his ambitious goals may be thwarted by aging transformers and aging power lines that make it difficult for homeowners, local governments and businesses to use solar panels, batteries, Electric cars, heat pumps and other devices can help reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Much of the equipment on the grid was built decades ago and needs to be upgraded. It’s designed for a world in which electricity flows in one direction – from the grid to people. Today, homes and businesses are increasingly powering the grid from solar panels on their roofs.
These issues become all the more urgent because the fastest way to cut greenhouse gas emissions is to convert machinery, cars and heating equipment that currently run on oil and natural gas to electricity that is generated from solar, wind, nuclear and other zero-emission energy sources. However, the grid is far from having enough capacity to power all the things that could help tackle the effects of climate change, energy experts say.
“It was a perfect storm when it came to meeting the demand we were going to have,” said Michael Johnston, executive director of rules and standards for the National Association of Electrical Contractors. “It’s no small matter.”
‘Infrastructure is failing’
Ms. Garcia and her husband, Quin, purchased their home in the Portola Valley more than a year ago. They invest in solar energy because Ms. Garcia, a 37-year-old biotech lawyer, and her husband, a venture capitalist, want to do their part to fight climate change.
The Garcias are not pioneers. According to the California Solar and Storage Association, about 1 in 10 electricity customers in the state have solar power.
So the Garcias were surprised when their company, Pacific Gas & Electric, didn’t allow them to make full use of the panels.
The problem is that on sunny days, rooftop solar panels can generate more electricity than is used in the neighborhoods where they are installed. That can overload power transformers, which regulate and direct current in the vicinity, forcing them to shut down or start up. Such problems can be avoided by installing newer, larger capacity transformers.
Barry Cinnamon, chief executive officer of Cinnamon Energy Systems, the company that installed the panels for the Garcias, says such problems are all too common. “My experience and understanding of what utility companies do is that they just wait until the neighborhood is overloaded and then the transformer blows up,” said Cinnamon.
PG&E apologized for the delay in upgrading a transformer outside the Garcia home, noting that it could take workers up to six months to get the job done if they are flooded with projects.
During a heatwave in August 2020, an old transformer at an electrical substation in downtown San Jose, about 25 miles from where the Garcias live, blew up. That has taken the homes of tens of thousands of people, some for days.
The city’s mayor, Sam Liccardo, expressed frustration with PG&E, saying the company’s old equipment is hindering San Jose’s plans to increase use of solar panels, electric cars and appliances other new. To meet its climate goals, the city has banned the use of natural gas in new buildings, the largest local government in the country has done so.
“It’s an infrastructure that’s failing,” said Liccardo, a Democrat. “We are very ambitious. The question is whether there will be a grid ready when we get there.”
Mark Esguerra, senior director of electrical asset strategy at PG&E, said the company plans to upgrade a lot of its equipment. Since the San Jose incident last year, the company has replaced 400 transformers in and around that city, out of a total of 62,000 transformers in Santa Clara County. The company added that it supports the use of solar panels by nearly 600,000 residential customers and electric cars owned by 360,000 customers.
“We know that our grid will look different in the next few years,” Mr. Esguerra said.
How much and how fast?
The big challenge for policymakers and the utilities industry is figuring out how to quickly invest in the grid while keeping energy levels affordable.
Ben Hertz-Shargel, global head of Grid Edge, a division of Wood Mackenzie, a research and consulting firm, said it would cost hundreds of billions of dollars to upgrade the nationwide distribution network in order to meet the country’s clean energy goals. That doesn’t include spending on long-distance transmission lines and electricity-generating devices like wind and solar farms.
Mr. Hertz-Shargel has personal experience with the shortcomings of the grid. When he was recently charging his Tesla at his home on Long Island, the electrical equipment that connected the utility’s power line to his home became so hot that it melted.
“I am the only EV on my block, and even that modest usage is enough to overwhelm the secondary side of the grid in my house,” he said. “It just shows how many weak links there are in the utility distribution system.”
The amount that utilities spend on their equipment is determined in a complicated process that involves state regulators having to approve an increase in the price of electricity to pay for the upgrade.
“The Commissioners,” said Abigail Anthony, a utility manager in Rhode Island who also chairs a committee that studies these issues at the National Regulatory Utility Association.
“It’s not just cars and heating that need to be affordable, but fuel, electricity, especially compared to oil, gasoline and natural gas,” Ms. Anthony said.
Those who are pushing for more investment say the spending will pay off by helping people save money on monthly bills and avert the worst effects of climate change.
Consider the following example: If all 330,000 households in San Jose abandoned gasoline and natural gas and switched to electric cars, heat pumps, water heaters, and electric stoves, the city would uses three times as much electricity as it does now, according to Rewiring America, a nonprofit group that advocates for grid upgrades and climate change policies.
But the amount San Jose residents and businesses spend on electricity won’t necessarily triple or even double, the group argues. That’s because people can generate some electricity through rooftop solar panels and store that energy in home batteries. Sam Calisch, Rewiring America’s head of research, says they can install smart appliances and thermostats to use electricity when it costs less, such as at night.
Emily Fisher, senior vice president of clean energy at the Edison Electric Institute, a utility industry trade group, offers another example. Mr. Biden wants electric cars to make up half of all new cars sold in the country by 2030. If all of these cars are plugged in during the day when energy consumption is high, utility companies will have to spend a lot on upgrading. But if regulators allow more utilities to offer lower electricity prices at night, people will charge cars when there is more capacity to spare.
Some businesses have been looking for ways to be less dependent on the grid when demand is high. Electrify America, a Volkswagen subsidiary that operates electric vehicle charging networks, has installed large batteries at some charging stations to avoid paying fees that utility agencies impose on businesses that consume too much. Electrical Power.
Robert Barrosa, director of sales and marketing for Electrify America, says the company can ultimately help utilities by taking power when there’s too much and delivering when there’s not enough.
Finally, electric cars, fireplaces, stoves, and other appliances that are now running on fossil fuels can save a family between $1,050 and $2,585 a year on average, according to Rewiring America. These products are more energy efficient, and electricity tends to cost less than comparable gasoline, heating oil, and natural gas. Electric vehicles and appliances are also cheaper to maintain.
“Doing it right, money can go further towards a more reliable network,” Mr. Calisch said, “especially in the face of increased stress from climate change.”