• The San Juan Daily Star

Old power gear is slowing use of clean energy and electric cars

Theresa Garcia near her home and solar panels, which she cannot use until a nearby transformer is upgraded, in Portola Valley, Calif., Oct. 14, 2021.

By Ivan Penn

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

“We wasted 30,000-something dollars on a system we can’t use,” Theresa Garcia said. “It’s just been really frustrating.”

President Joe Biden is pushing lawmakers and regulators to wean the United States from fossil fuels and counter the effects of climate change. But his ambitious goals could be upended by aging transformers and dated electrical lines that have made it hard for homeowners, local governments and businesses to use solar panels, batteries, electric cars, heat pumps and other devices that can help reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Much 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 people. Now, homes and businesses are increasingly supplying energy to the grid from their rooftop solar panels.

These problems have become more urgent because the fastest way to cut greenhouse gas emissions is to move machinery, cars and heating equipment that run on oil and natural gas to electricity generated by solar, wind, nuclear and other zero-emission energy sources. Yet the grid is far from having enough capacity to power all the things that can help address the effects of climate change, energy experts said.

“It’s a perfect violent storm as far as meeting the demand that 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.”

Electric grids are also under strain from climate change itself. California imposed rolling blackouts last year during a heat wave. In February, more than 200 people died after the Texas electric grid collapsed during a winter storm. Then in August, Hurricane Ida toppled electric lines across Louisiana, leaving millions without power for days.

‘Failing’ Infrastructure

Garcia and her husband, Quin, bought their home in Portola Valley a little more than a year ago. They invested in solar because 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. About 1 in 10 utility customers in the state has solar power, according to the California Solar and Storage Association.

So, the Garcias were surprised when their utility, Pacific Gas & Electric, would 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 being used in the neighborhoods where they are installed. That can overload electrical transformers, which help regulate and direct the flow of electricity within a neighborhood, forcing them to shut off or blow up. Such problems can be avoided by installing newer transformers that have greater capacity.

Barry Cinnamon, CEO of Cinnamon Energy Systems, the company that installed the panels on the Garcia home, said such problems are far too common. “My experience and understanding of the way utilities do things is they just wait until the neighborhood is overloaded, and then the transformer blows up,” Cinnamon said.

PG&E apologized for the delay in upgrading the transformer outside the Garcia home, noting that it can take workers up to six months to do so if they are swamped with projects.

During a heat wave in August 2020, an aging transformer at an electrical substation in downtown San Jose, California, which is about 25 miles from where the Garcias live, blew up. That blacked out the homes of about 18,000 people, some for days.

The city’s mayor, Sam Liccardo, expressed frustration with PG&E, saying the company’s dated equipment was hampering San Jose’s plan to increase the use of solar panels, electric cars and other new devices. 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.

“It’s an infrastructure that’s failing,” Liccardo, a Democrat, said. “We’re very ambitious. The question is whether there will be a grid ready when we get there.”

Mark Esguerra, senior director of electric asset strategy at PG&E, said the company planned to upgrade a lot more of its equipment. Since the failure in San Jose last year, the company has replaced 400 transformers in and around that city, 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 that our grid is going to look different in a few years,” Esguerra said.

How Much? How Fast?

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

It would cost hundreds of billions of dollars to upgrade the distribution networks across the country to meet the country’s clean energy goals, said Ben Hertz-Shargel, global head of Grid Edge, a division of Wood Mackenzie, a research and consulting firm. That does not include spending on long-distance transmission lines and power generating equipment like solar and wind farms.

Hertz-Shargel has personal experience with the shortcomings of the electric 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’m the only EV on my block, and even that modest use was enough to overwhelm the secondary side of the grid on my house,” he said. “It just shows how many weak links there are in the utility distribution system.”

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