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Aged electric grid threatens Palo Alto's climate change goals

Original post made on Mar 8, 2022

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.

Read the full story here Web Link posted Tuesday, March 8, 2022, 10:52 AM

Comments (18)

Posted by Bystander
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 8, 2022 at 2:13 pm

Bystander is a registered user.

It is over 10 years since Palo Alto came to a halt due to a powerline coming down due to an accident in East Palo Alto. From memory, Stanford hospital had to stop all non-essential procedures, surgeries, etc. Most retail establishements were unable to do business without power. Most Palo Alto schools had problems, some classes moving outside as lighting in classrooms meant it was too dark to see the material. Power was out for about 12 hours which meant food could not be kept cool and frozen food started defrosting, food had to be thrown out.

We are now even more dependent on power. People work from home. Online streaming, work, exams, are even more prevalent now than they were on that fateful day.

Palo Alto power is unreliable with helium filled balloons, squirrels, seaguls, geese and tree limbs all responsible for outages. It seems to me that every month or so a power outages is reported for some reason and if we have a bad storm even more outages will occur.

And now the City seems to think our powergrid is aged and unlikely to do the job of providing more power to more customers! We know all that and have done for many years. The citywide power outage could happen again since there have been no upgrades in case of a similar event.

Please use some common sense. Silicon Valley cannot function like this.

Posted by rsmithjr
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Mar 8, 2022 at 10:07 pm

rsmithjr is a registered user.

This is a real task for our utilities department. Spending money on the power grid is a lot more sensible than spending $98 million (at least) on a fiber to the premises project that replicates facilities that two of the largest communications companies are already providing and aggressively upgrading.

Posted by Eeyore (formerly StarSpring)
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Mar 8, 2022 at 10:32 pm

Eeyore (formerly StarSpring) is a registered user.

And ten years after the power outage we still do not have a redundant power feed for our city. Plus! We want to remove natural gas from our homes, the one backup,power source that we have in the event electricity fails again.

Posted by Online Name
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Mar 9, 2022 at 11:12 am

Online Name is a registered user.

Enough with the virtue-signalling Climate Sustainability plan that ignores reality and that will do very little if anything outside our borders.

The fiber program is a ridiculous expensive joke that will be run by a utility that can't handle the basics beyond stealing $20,000,000 from us each and every year. Why does ANYONE think PAU can run an efficient, competitive service when it can't even manage parking permit programs, simple filing for rebate programs.

It wasn't too long ago the city refused to consider expanding underground wiring to save us from the Mylar balloons!

Stop this ludicrous preaching and just make the basics work cost-effectively and efficiently.

Posted by NeilsonBuchanan
a resident of Downtown North
on Mar 9, 2022 at 11:40 am

NeilsonBuchanan is a registered user.

Thanks, PA Online and Gennady,

This is ideal time to stop, look up and listen. Ten days ago I sent photo to city staff about a wire draping down from nearby utility pole onto sidewalk. Staff followed up in timely manner for the abandoned cable comm line (apparently not dangerous just unslightly). Staff welcomed my offer to send more photographs of questionable cables, etc.

DTN neighborhood utility poles are heavily loaded with bewildering maze of tangled wires and cables just as ATT is adding more heavy fiber optic cables. We recently repaired a brick walkway between the sidewalk and street and discovered two abandoned? TV? cables less than 6 inches below ground.

I am pleased to see staff and Utility Commissioners "looking up" to infrastructure in plain sight. And I am hoping for better outcome than the recent movie "Don't Look Up"

Posted by William Hitchens
a resident of Mountain View
on Mar 9, 2022 at 2:02 pm

William Hitchens is a registered user.

I remember from an excellent previous recent article written by a power expert (I forget her name) that in order to achieve its present, highly arbitrary and aggressive goals, the current capacity of almost all of the present power lines, transformers, substations, etc would have to be increased by a whopping 300% to 400%. Oops! Basically, this would necessitate a complete replacement upgrade of the present Palo Alto power grid throughout the entire city.

This immediately brings two things to mind. This will be hugely expensive and time-consuming because the upgrades will have to be made without disturbing power from the present system. They'd have to be done in parallel and in sections. Just how is Palo Alto going to pay the enormous costs of this replacement of its power system?

My second thought is whether Palo Alto can get sufficient power from its sources outside of the city and presumably Santa Clara County. It's one thing to get something permitted within Palo Alto, but another thing to get another city and county to go along with Palo Alto's plans.

In the long run, it might be more practical just to create neighborhood "minigrids" of solar panels on people's roofs. But, how will we run all of those heat pumps, electric stoves, and electric water heaters at night when there's no sun and there are no affordable ways to store power generated when the sun shines?

Posted by Holden
a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Mar 9, 2022 at 2:43 pm

Holden is a registered user.

I think it's worth considering spending some of this earmarked "utility upgrade" money instead towards rebates to encourage Palo Alto homeowners to have home electricity storage.


Because our houses' worst-case *peak* electricity demand, which presumably will necessitate new, beefier wires and infrastructure, totally overshadows our *average* electricity demand. See the following:

Here's a back-of-the-envelope calculation -- what would the *average* power consumption of a fully-electrified house in California be? 

In other words, if this house had some energy storage (home battery and/or EVs), but no solar system on the roof, what would its continuous, average power draw from the grid be?

Here are some rough 2009 California numbers I pulled off the EIA website:

* Average CA household annual electricity consumption:  7000 kWh

* Average CA household annual space/water heating use (60 million BTU -- let's assume produced by a heat pump with a Coefficient of Performance of 3.5):  5000 kWh

* Average CA household annual EV electricity use (2 cars x 12,000 miles x 0.25 kWh/mile, 100% charged at home):  6000 kWh

* Total annual electricity consumption of fully-electrified house:  18,000 kWh

Now, if that 18,000 kWh of electrical energy were to be provided to the house at a *constant* basis 24/7/365, that works out to be about 2 kW of continuous power.  Or, assuming a 220V utility service, that's only about 9 amps, continuous.

So instead of upgrading our utility grid, how about encouraging lots of household batteries (like a Tesla PowerWall or equivalent)? That could go a long way to smoothing out *peak* demands to something our existing grid could already handle.

Posted by mjh
a resident of College Terrace
on Mar 9, 2022 at 4:49 pm

mjh is a registered user.

Some time ago I understood Palo Alto's Utilities Department has a hidden financial conflict of interest with encouraging residents to install solar. On the one hand encouraging the installation of private solar panels increases Palo Alto's sustainability chops, on the other hand each private solar installation decreases the demand for city supplied electricity with a corresponding loss of revenue for the Utilities Department budget.

This reminds me, at least as I recall it, of the time when on one hand the city council decided to pay for an expensive long-term contract with a recycling plant to drastically reduce the volume of waste diverted to landfill. Meantime, on the other hand, the Utilities Department went ahead with obtaining and paying millions of tax dollars upfront for a long-term contract for excess and unused space in an East Bay landfill.

Posted by Mark Lawrence
a resident of Midtown
on Mar 9, 2022 at 9:04 pm

Mark Lawrence is a registered user.

If we want full electrification, we need to replace all the older (overhead) distribution system with properly-sized underground wires. We certainly don't want to put fatter wires and more and larger transformers on those old poles. My neighborhood got underground utilities a few years ago and likely has adequate capacity but when I look at those skinny wires with insulators good only for 4kV I cringe. (Modern distribution systems use 12kV mostly.)

We can do this but it's going to be expensive. We can't set a deadline for electrification without a well-engineered plan for upgrading our distribution system so it can support it reliably. Banning gas is not the answer, especially when we don't have the infrastructure to support the electric alternative. And most of that electricity will be generated by burning natural gas, or, worse, coal. (AFAIK California has no coal-fired generators, but we import power from places that do.)

Everyone needs to read the City's report on issues with solar power system permits -- it appears that our permit/inspection folks are a major roadblock for solar power in Palo Alto.

Posted by Online Name
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Mar 9, 2022 at 10:12 pm

Online Name is a registered user.

The previous city council and administration refused to consider more undergrounding. I'll never forget when former Mayor Fine seemed to be unaware that several neighborhoods had been undergrounded for decades and the former city manager said it was unaffordable.

Utter nonsense.

Posted by Local Resident
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Mar 10, 2022 at 12:49 am

Local Resident is a registered user.

Yet another reason the city should push rooftop solar. It should subsidize energy storage systems (Tesla Powerwalls) to reduce peak demand and lower grid capacity needed. This leverages private capital and reduces public investment needed.

Also, the justification for adding fiber was not all neighborhoods were currently served by fiber by either AT&T or Comcast. However, they do plan to cover the whole city probably before Palo Alto Utilities can role out tgeirs. In the meantime Palo Alto Utilities is saying ghey do not have enough budget or expertise for the grid upgrades. Thus I think fiber should be cancelled and they should focus on the grid.

Posted by Resident 1-Adobe Meadows
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Mar 10, 2022 at 8:54 am

Resident 1-Adobe Meadows is a registered user.

We have a huge number of advocacy groups which pitch aspirational ideas with no actual recognition of the cost and attendant repercussions of their ideas. That is because they are pitching emotional, single focus ideas with no actual understanding of the impacts of these ideas and all of the surrounding impacts in the real time world. So the PACC comes up with an aspirational idea that does not recognize the cost of that idea - nor how to achieve the idea. Many of those people are working on agendas for further political recognition in this complicated political scene and are working the name recognition gig for future political advancement.

Joe Garfoli in his "It's all political" SFC column noted that the recent CA Democratic confab was fraught with many opposing ideas - many topics which did not address the real concerns of the CA residents. The political ideologues are trying to influence each other.

All of the realities of this topic decision have been made clear. Further noted that the electrical grid has a major crossroads in my location so I can see first hand the impact of tree limbs which go through the lines, wires hanging which none of the utility people ever fix - "that is someone else's line". A lot of talk but no real finances, manpower, or buy-in by the various companies that use the lines to push their products - AT&T, Comcast, etc. Add the squirrels which live in our "canopy" driven city. The poles are their main highway to the fences.

Posted by William Hitchens
a resident of Mountain View
on Mar 10, 2022 at 5:41 pm

William Hitchens is a registered user.

AHEM! As I said before, "batteries are and will remain too expensive and impractical to power an entire house, especially during the Winter with a power hungry heat pump, water heater and refrigerator/freezers." That's a very simple proven Physics and Power Engineering fact. But just how many of use have studied those essential subjects? We need natural gas into the indefinite future for home heat and cooling unless you want power interruptions. Batteries are an extremely inefficient and unaffordable way to STORE large amounts of electrical power unless you are filthy rich. And STORE is the critical word here. Example: If you drain your electric car's battery during the night to heat you house, just how will you drive to work in the morning? Doah! Ever think of that? That's common sense --- or is it for most people? Or maybe Tesla, that is desperate to convince us to buy their unreliable, inferior so-called cars and SUV's?

The Feds and the major utilities (states like CA are politically oblivious to facts and truth), are working on mega-scale projects based upon thermal energy storage, but those are decades from now. So, are we willing to freeze to death in the cold dark, are are we willing to admit that our goals have been far too ambitious and need to be linked to FACT and not IGNORANT IDEALISM?

Posted by Resident 1-Adobe Meadows
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Mar 11, 2022 at 10:59 am

Resident 1-Adobe Meadows is a registered user.

Why is the city establishing a goal that is counter-productive? We already have the facts on the table state-wide keeping the electrical grid operable is a problem. We already know that we are having a water shortage which would reduce the access to hydro-electric power. Our state in total is in trouble. If the state is in trouble relative to the power grid then trying to establish goals which would exacerbate the issue is not a goal. It is a political move to respond to advocacy groups which are short on funding and knowledge as to how to upgrade the systems.

Bottom line is you need gas for the house functions that operate on gas very effectively. In my house that is the water heater and the regular heater. Many are now putting in gas stoves.

Posted by Pat Markevitch
a resident of Downtown North
on Mar 11, 2022 at 1:47 pm

Pat Markevitch is a registered user.

It is beyond the pale that we should be even contemplating getting rid of natural gas to the homes. This is outrageous and very short sighted.

Posted by Curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Mar 12, 2022 at 11:23 pm

Curmudgeon is a registered user.

"that works out to be about 2 kW of continuous power. Or, assuming a 220V utility service, that's only about 9 amps, continuous."

So far so good. Now, how fat do the distribution wires need to be to supply 9 amps continuous to however many 1000 homes each serves, and how does that compare to their present bulk? Don't neglect to allow for surge demand.

Posted by Annette
a resident of College Terrace
on Mar 13, 2022 at 6:25 am

Annette is a registered user.

I think it likely that the "excellent previous recent article written by a power expert" is the one written by Sherry Listgarten. This is still up under her blog in this publication. She regularly provides superb information.

With fire now being a year-round concern (and an outright peril during some months) it seems obvious that undergrounding should be a priority.

It also seems obvious that increasing growth in this area isn't sustainable in the most basic of ways. Specifically: water and power. I think we can address the power issue and I've read some reports about genius efforts/ideas regarding water, but we "aren't there yet" and increasing demand before we are is akin to asking for trouble. A less generous word for it is stupid.

Posted by William Hitchens
a resident of Mountain View
on Mar 13, 2022 at 5:46 pm

William Hitchens is a registered user.

Annette, thank you for naming Sherry as the author, whose brief but superb & crushing analysis of the gross shortcomings of PA's power plan was published very recently in Palo Alto Online.

Her analysis was so brilliantly compact, well stated and proven that even a reasonably smart PA resident can understand it --- but only if they aren't blindly bigoted against her proven arguments. As a research PhD, it's really refreshing to see someone highly competent like her take the effort to research and then publish the shortcomings of "the best laid [pathetic] plans mice and men". It's even more refreshing that she wrote a short but very comprehensible and damning analysis of just what's wrong with plans generated by PA bureaucrats who CAN'T POSSIBLY understand the hugely expensive and complex problems facing widespread implementation of "Green Power". Even withing a small city like Palo Alto, let alone the USA.

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