By Diana Diamond
A left- v. right-hand problem in PA’s push to be an “all-electric city”Uploaded: Mar 2, 2022
Will Palo Alto and other local cities have adequate distribution systems to go all-electric by 2030? Some utility experts say absolutely not – we don’t have the capacity to do so. Yet the city council and staff are plunging ahead, setting an aggressive goal of eliminating natural gas in homes and instead requiring all-electric stoves, water heaters, house and space heating systems by 2030.
And, if that’s not enough the city council is considering requiring residents to replace all gas-fueled vehicles with electric vehicles (EVs) by 2035.
That makes me wonder if the left hand knows what the right hand is doing in this city.
As my fellow blogger, Sherry Listgarten, said in her Feb. 6 posting, “Are Palo Alto’s climate goals threatened by inadequate power grid?” She wrote, ”The City of Palo Alto’s emissions goals are in jeopardy because of its outdated electrical grid. During a February 2 Utilities Advisory Commission (UAC) meeting that Commissioner A. C. Johnston called “one of the most important discussions we’ve had on UAC for a long time,” Assistant Director of Utilities Tomm Marshall did not mince words. When asked if the city would be able to electrify all of its single-family homes by 2030, as the city has been exploring, he responded “Practically, it can’t be done.”
“Palo Alto’s electric grid was designed decades ago for homes that used relatively little electricity. Marshall explained that it’s “very typical” for a utility pole with a 37.5 kVA transformer to support around 15 households. What that means is those homes could consume an average of about 2400 watts. Think one toaster plus one hair dryer. You can imagine that as households add heat pumps and EV charging, which tend to run at several kilowatts (kW) for multiple hours, the utility would need to upgrade the transformers and the lines that feed them.”
So, I am concerned. If some of our UAC members say it can’t be done, and yet city council members say we are doing do it, then Houston, we have a problem. And it’s a much bigger problem than having a pink mylar balloon getting caught in an electric wire causing e a minor blackout
Mayor Pat Burt has said we have enough electricity, but the real issue is those old transformers and lines hat can’t handle an all-electric city.
So if we leap ahead and try to go all electric, it will come at a considerable cost to many residents and commercial building owners The problem I envision is that getting rid of gas stoves, gas water heaters and getting rid of our gas vehicles, we may find that we simply don‘t have enough available electricity in town each day, which could result in that dark word, “blackouts.”
And then what do we do?
I think the council’s goal to go all electric is virtuous, to say the least, but the 2030 timing is too early. The devastating effects of increased climate change is a big worldwide problem that must be addressed --but haste does make waste.
Also, as much as this council wants to lead the way in controlling emissions, the net effect will be minor. If we reduce our CO2 levels, it will be a miniscule speck on a global map. If all U.S. cities took similar steps, it certainly would help. After this country complies, all we have to do is convince a few countries like China, India and Russia to see it our way.
And now, a bit of cynicism about the city staff’s goals. We are charged on our monthly electric consumption – the more we use the higher our hourly rates are. So, the more we convert to electric, the more we will have to pay. Peak hours are 4 p.m. to 9 p.m., when rates are the highest. That happens to be the time most of us come home from work, turn the lights on, push up the thermostats or air conditioners, start cooking, turn on the stove and oven and TVs. After dinner, the kids may need a hot water bath, and many of us use the dishwasher.
The Utilities Department sends out our bills, and I guess they are pleased with the money flowing in. However, but each year Utilities turns over about $20 million of our utility bills to the city’s general fund. So the city makes more money off our utility bills. In other words, the rates we are charged for electricity go, in part, to the city’s general fund to spend on whatever city officials want.
More money in the city coffers was probably not the motivation for the go-electric crusade in town, but I do think it will be a nice $$$ benefit for the city.
And this electricity transmission problem is not Palo Alto’s alone.
As Dan Walters, a CalMatters columnist, wrote this week: “California’s officialdom is bent on making the state carbon-free by converting power generation to wind and solar, by replacing gasoline- and diesel-powered vehicles with electric cars and trucks, and by phasing out natural gas in homes and business.”
Walters goes on to say, ”This massive conversion would impose huge new demands on an electrical grid that already comes up short on some hot summer days when air conditioning systems run at full tilt – days that climate change will make more frequent, by the way.”
But while the goal is good, I go back to my original question. Will we have sufficient equipment—transformers and power lines – to handle an all-electric city by 2030? I fear not. And if we go all-electric, and the electricity isn’t available, then I again ask, what do we do?