Seven months after workers finish installing solar panels on top of Garcia’s family home near Stanford University, the system is little more than a roof ornament. The problem: The local utility equipment is so overloaded that there is no room for the electricity produced by the panels.
“We have wasted some $ 30,000 on a system that we cannot use,” said Theresa Garcia. “It’s just really frustrating.”
President Biden is pushing lawmakers and regulators to wean the United States off fossil fuels and counter the effects of climate change. But its ambitious goals could be thwarted by aging transformers and obsolete power lines that have made it difficult for homeowners, local governments and businesses to use solar panels, batteries, electric cars, heat pumps and more. other devices that can help reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Most of the equipment in the power grid was built decades ago and needs to be modernized. It was designed for a world in which electricity flowed in one direction, from the grid to people. Today, homes and businesses are increasingly supplying the grid with energy from their rooftop solar panels.
These issues have become more urgent as the fastest way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is to move machines, cars and heating equipment that currently run on oil and natural gas to electricity produced by solar, wind, nuclear and other zero emission energy sources. Still, the grid is far from having enough capacity to power anything that can help tackle the effects of climate change, energy experts have said.
“It’s a perfect severe storm to meet the demand we’re going to have,” said Michael Johnston, executive director of codes and standards for the National Electrical Contractors Association. “It’s no small problem.”
“A failing infrastructure”
Ms Garcia and her husband, Quin, bought their home in the Portola Valley just over a year ago. They invested in solar because Ms Garcia, a 37-year-old biotech lawyer, and her husband, a venture capitalist, wanted to do their part to fight climate change.
The Garcias are not pioneers. According to the California Solar and Storage Association, about one in ten state utility customers owns solar power.
Thus, the Garcias were surprised when their utility, Pacific Gas & Electric, did not allow them to fully use the panels.
The problem is that on sunny days, rooftop solar panels can produce a lot more electricity than is used in the neighborhoods where they are installed. This can overload electrical transformers, which help regulate and direct the flow of electricity in a neighborhood, causing them to shut down or explode. Such problems can be avoided by installing newer transformers which have higher capacity.
Barry Cinnamon, managing director of Cinnamon Energy Systems, the company that installed the panels on Garcia’s house, said such problems were far too common. “My experience and understanding of the way utilities do things is that they just wait until the neighborhood is overloaded and the transformer blows up,” Cinnamon said.
PG&E apologized for the delay in upgrading the transformer outside Garcia’s house, noting that it can take workers up to six months if they are inundated with projects.
During a heat wave in August 2020, an aging transformer at an electrical substation in downtown San Jose, located about 25 miles from where the Garcias live, exploded. It darkened the homes of tens of thousands of people, some for days.
City mayor Sam Liccardo expressed frustration with PG&E, saying the company’s outdated equipment hampered San Jose’s plan to increase the use of solar panels, electric cars and other new devices. To meet 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.
“It’s a failing infrastructure,” Liccardo, a Democrat, said. “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 much more of its equipment. Since the failure of 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 added that it supports the use of solar panels by nearly 600,000 of its residential customers and electric cars owned by 360,000 customers.
“We know our network will be different in a few years,” said Mr. Esguerra.
How much and how quickly?
The big challenge for policymakers and the utility industry is how quickly to invest in the grid while keeping energy affordable.
It would cost hundreds of billions of dollars to modernize distribution networks across the country to meet the country’s clean energy goals, said Ben Hertz-Shargel, global director of Grid Edge, a division of Wood Mackenzie. , a research and consulting company. This does not include spending on long distance transmission lines and power generation equipment like solar and wind farms.
Mr. Hertz-Shargel has personal experience of shortcomings in the power grid. When he was recently charging his Tesla at his home on Long Island, the electrical equipment that ran the utility power line to his house got so hot it melted.
“I’m the only EV in my neighborhood and even that modest use was enough to overwhelm the secondary side of my house’s grill,” he said. “It just shows the number of weak links in the utility delivery system. “
The amount of money utilities spend on their equipment is determined in a complicated process that involves state regulators who must approve increases in electricity rates that pay for upgrades.
State officials don’t want to raise tariffs too much because it hurts consumers and could undermine public support for clean energy, said Abigail Anthony, a Rhode Island utilities regulator who also chairs a committee. who studies these issues at the National Association of Regulatory Utility. Commissioners.
“Not only must cars and heating systems be affordable,” Ms. Anthony said, “but also fuel, electricity, must be cheap, especially compared to oil, gasoline and natural gas. “
People asking for more investment say the spending will pay off by saving money on monthly bills and preventing the worst effects of climate change.
Consider the following example: if the 330,000 households in San José gave up 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 fuel. electricity than today, according to Rewiring America, a nonprofit group that advocates for grid upgrades and policies to combat climate change.
But the money San Jose residents and businesses spend on electricity wouldn’t necessarily triple, or even double, the group says. This is because people could generate electricity from rooftop solar panels and store that energy in home batteries. They could install thermostats and smart devices to use electricity when it costs less, such as at night, said Sam Calisch, research manager at Rewiring America.
Emily Fisher, senior vice president of clean energy at the Edison Electric Institute, a utility industry trade group, gave another example. Mr Biden wants electric cars to account for half of new cars sold in the country by 2030. If all of those cars were plugged in during the day when energy use is high, utilities would have to spend a lot on upgrades. at the level. But if regulators allowed more utilities to offer lower electricity rates at night, people would charge cars when there is a lot of capacity available.
Some businesses are already finding ways to rely less on the grid when demand is high. Electrify America, a subsidiary of Volkswagen that operates an electric vehicle charging network, has installed large batteries at some charging stations to avoid paying the fees that utilities impose on companies that consume too much electricity.
Robert Barrosa, senior director of sales and marketing at Electrify America, said the company could ultimately help utilities by taking power when there is too much and providing it when there is not. quite.
Ultimately, electrifying cars, heaters, stoves and other equipment that currently run on fossil fuels could save an average family $ 1,050 to $ 2,585 per year, according to Rewiring America. These products are more energy efficient and electricity tends to cost less than comparable amounts of gasoline, fuel oil, and natural gas. Cars and electrical appliances are also cheaper to maintain.
“Done well, the money can go further towards a more reliable network,” Calisch said, “especially in the face of the increased stress of climate change.