With Palo Alto encouraging a widespread push toward "electrification" to meet the city's goals on climate change, utility officials are warning that the city's aged electric grid may not be able to accommodate the effort.
Given the challenge, two members of the Utilities Advisory Commission on Monday asked the City Council to immediately create a road map for modernizing the city's grid, much of which was built in the 1950s and 1960s and does not have the capacity to accommodate citywide electrification. In a memo, the two commissioners, A.C Johnston and Phil Metz, noted that for the city to achieve its goal of reducing emissions by 80% by 2030 (with 1990 as the baseline), it would need to ensure that about 85% of the city's new vehicle purchases are electric and that almost all gas appliances in single-family homes and all commercial rooftop heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) units are electrified.
"The existing infrastructure has insufficient capacity for a sufficient level of electrification of EV transportation and electrical heating to meet the SCAP (Sustainability/Climate Action Plan) goals, and the grid has other technical shortcomings that need to be addressed," the commissioners wrote in the memo, which they presented to the council on Monday.
Problems with the city's electric grid emerged as a hot topic last month, when Tomm Marshall, assistant director in the Utilities Department, gave the Utilities Advisory Commission a presentation that highlighted the challenges that the Utilities Department is facing when it comes to meeting the city's electrification goals. The grid, he said, does not have the capacity to accommodate recently developed technologies such as electrification of gas appliances, distributed generation and electric vehicles.
"Currently the grid, as it is today, cannot handle everyone putting in the heat pump out there, maybe not even half the people putting in the heat pump," Marshall said. "There's places today where we can't even take one heat pump without having to rebuild a portion of the system. Or we can't even have one more EV charger go on … we're already maxed out on capacity."
While the council did not take any formal actions on Monday, utilities commissioners and council members acknowledged on Monday during their joint study session that the city will need to make a significant investment in modernizing the grid, a process that would take several years and require additional staffing.
"We want to make sure we can underline the urgency of planning for the grid modernization because it will take time. It's complicated," Johnston said. "There's going to be quite a bit of expense involved."
Metz noted, however, that the city's pending switch to "advanced metering infrastructure," also known as smart meters, can help take some pressure off the grid by creating ways to reduce peak demand and lessening the need for additional grid infrastructure.
"There's a lot of levers that could be pulled and we think it's especially important to look at those," Metz said.
Council members agreed Monday that updating the grid should be a major focus of the city's push toward meeting the 80x30 goal and that the Utilities Advisory Commission should play a leading role in the effort. Vice Mayor Lydia Kou suggested that modernizing the grid would encourage more people to switch from gas to electricity for their vehicles and home appliances.
"Once this grid is addressed, then there is more confidence about switching over and more willingness to do so," Kou said.
The council had established its goal of cutting emissions in 2016 but has failed to launch any significant initiative since then, frustrating local environmentalists. According to city officials, the city is currently on pace to cut its emissions by only 47%, an achievement made possible by the city's switch to a carbon-free electric portfolio in 2013.
Given the sluggish pace of progress, council members have tried to make emission reduction a more pressing priority over the past two years. The council had established a new Sustainability/Climate Action Plan Committee consisting of Mayor Pat Burt and council member Alison Cormack, which held public meetings throughout the year on topics like electric vehicles and electrification of residential and commercial buildings.
The committee has also established a working group of experts and activists who will break out into teams in the coming months to focus on four topics: financing, community engagement, technology and scaling up the activities of the sustainability plan.
Burt said Monday that these discussions will influence the city's decisions on what types of grid upgrades to make. The goal, he said, is to present a plan for meeting the sustainability plan's objectives by this fall.
"We're all going to have our work cut out for us together," Burt said. "This is not something we can borrow from our predecessors, because there aren't any predecessors."