PALA-ALTA – Every six homes in this green homeland of Silicon Valley have a connected car, and more are waiting for it. Other homes have heat pumps, induction hobs and lots of shiny solar panels that help reduce climate change.
However, yesterday’s power grid can’t keep up with tomorrow’s carbon-free ambitions.
We are in the “build-up” mode. We will not achieve our goals until we accelerate, ”said Mayor Pat Burt, who drives the connected Mitsubishi Outlander hybrid. “But we really don’t have the ability to do it faster than we did. That’s the crunch. “
This is a harbinger of what will happen in other California cities. As Berkeley, San Jose and a growing number of other communities strive for a fully electric future, their transformers and distribution lines face the serious challenge of having to provide much more energy. Los Angeles also offers to explore what is needed to upgrade power grid infrastructure.
The Pala Alta network of this entire city was built on the electrical needs of the 1950s, 60s and 70s, shortly after Hewlett-Packard was conceived in a small wooden garage on Edison Avenue, which led to that has become transformative. technical revolution.
At the time, few had electric heating or air conditioning. Water heaters used gas. So did the cars. The whole house consumed as much electricity per day as one charge of a high-speed EV car.
Even in this progressive and affluent city of 68,000 people, home to Google co-founder Larry Page, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Apple CEO Tim Cook and former Tesla battery director Kurt Kelty, the problem is huge.
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 energy from solar, hydroelectric, wind and landfill gas sources.
But it has promised to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80% below 1990 levels in just eight years.
This fully electric goal means that every new single-family home is without gas, as well as a massive transition from gas to electrical appliances in existing buildings. Natural gas will be cut off either by shutting down the maintenance of each individual house, or by sealing the valves of the network that serves the entire unit. There is no information on whether the city will offer grants or subsidies to homeowners who cannot afford modernization.
Eight out of 10 cars will be EVs. Two years ago, Pala Alta had about 4,200 charging stations, but by 2030 that number is projected to jump to 33,000.
He can continue to do what he is doing now, updating block by block as problems arise. Or it can upgrade an entire network, entire neighborhoods or chains simultaneously. A study is being conducted that analyzes the modernization that will be needed.
“We have these aspiring goals … but the practical steps to achieve them are really difficult and involve many difficult choices,” said city council member A.K. Johnston, retired intellectual property attorney.
The city is already renovating some buildings to gain experience. In partnership with the non-profit organization MidPen Housing for affordable housing, the city recently closed the gas valves and installed a heat pump system in the Mill Court apartments, a 24-apartment complex for adults with special needs.
“It’s better,” said 72-year-old Alfred Bostik, whose large gas stove has been replaced by a cleaner, more efficient and less expensive electric heater. For the first time it has air conditioning.
Time is of the essence, said Brett Anderson of Carbon-Free Pala Alto. Devices such as water heaters and heaters last a long time – so modern installations have long-term consequences.
Instead of random updates, “this should be done systematically … as soon as electrification begins to become very widespread,” said retired engineer and physicist Peter Cross, who built a fully electric house.
So far, the city’s greenhouse gas emissions have fallen by 50% from 1990 levels, said Jonathan Abendshain, the city’s assistant director for utility management. Adjusted for the impact associated with the pandemic, it is approaching 42%.
“That means we need to go a considerable distance,” he said.
Existing transformers, white 500-pound cylinders that stand on poles and reduce power from high-voltage lines, are often too small. Also some wires and poles, he said. Even solar and battery-powered roof units can create problems because when they produce more electricity than used, they overload transformers.
“And today there are places where we can’t even take another heat pump without having to rebuild part of the system. Or we can’t even turn on a single EV charger, ”said Tom Marshall, assistant director of public utilities, at a recent meeting of the city’s utility advisory committee.
“If we go out and start actively promoting electrification … we will just chase after the tail, trying to keep up,” he said.
When the transformer is overloaded, its service life is shortened. Residents may experience a slight flicker of electricity. At worst, it explodes.
Rapid modernization of the entire network is cheaper in the long run, but it is a big initial cost: about $ 160 million, according to one preliminary estimate. If funded over 30 years at an interest rate of 3.2%, it will cost about $ 11 million a year.
This means the replacement of almost all 800 transformers that serve single-family homes, using experienced liners and “buckets”. More transformers can be added. It is estimated that 20% of secondary distribution lines and 25% of feeder lines also need upgrades. Perhaps some pillars need to be stronger. Newly introduced technologies will allow electricity to flow in different directions.
And because the entire city will rely on electricity, new controls, fuses and detection systems are needed to make the grid more resilient and recover faster, Abendshine said.
Aside from the cost, this poses several serious problems. Due to problems with supply chains transformers are not enough. And the competition is fierce for power engineers and rulers who have special skills and years of training. Even before the planned increase, 18 out of 68 vacancies in the city’s electric power industry and 5 out of 15 jobs of linemen are vacant.
Some residents believe that the new goals are being implemented too quickly.
“It’s too early for 2030,” said Diana Diamond. “Haste makes waste. … The problem I present is that by getting rid of gas stoves, gas water heaters and getting rid of our gas cars, we may find that we just don’t have enough electricity in the city every day, which can lead to that the dark word, ‘eclipse.’ «
But others are calling for a major overhaul. “We need a complete upgrade,” said Ben Lenail, whose family owns the Model S and Model X Tesla. “And that means huge investments in infrastructure.”
“It’s definitely far-sighted,” said Stanford Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering Mark Jacobson. «It will take some work to figure out the right recipe. ”