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 that. Yet city council and staff are diving ahead, setting an ambitious goal to phase out natural gas in homes and instead demanding all-electric stoves, water heaters, home and space heating systems to replace it. 2030.
And, if that’s not enough, the city council is considering requiring residents to replace all gas-powered vehicles with electric vehicles (EVs) by 2035.
It makes me wonder if the left hand knows what the right hand is doing in this town.
As my fellow blogger, Sherry Listgarten, put it in her Feb. 6 post: “Are Palo Alto’s climate goals threatened by an inadequate power grid?” She wrote, “The City of Palo Alto’s emissions targets are at risk due to its outdated electrical grid. At a February 2 Public Services Advisory Board (UAC) meeting that Commissioner AC Johnston called “one of the most important discussions we’ve had on UAC in a long time,” Deputy Director of public services, Tomm Marshall, did not mince his words. When asked if the city would be able to electrify all of its single-family homes by 2030, as the city has explored, he replied “Practically it can’t be done.”
“Palo Alto’s power 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 about 15 households. This means that these houses could draw an average of around 2400 watts. Consider a toaster and a hair dryer. You can imagine that as households add heat pumps and electric vehicle charging, which tend to run at several kilowatts (kW) for several hours, the utility would have to upgrade transformers and the lines that feed them.
So, I’m worried. If some of our UAC members say it can’t be done, and yet city council members say we are doing it, then Houston, we have a problem. And that’s a much bigger problem than having a pink mylar balloon caught in a wire causing a minor power outage.
Mayor Pat Burt said we have enough power, but the real problem is that those old transformers and lines can’t handle an all-electric city.
So if we take a leap forward and try to go all electric, it will come at a significant cost to many residents and commercial property owners. The problem I envision is that getting rid of gas stoves, gas water heaters and getting rid of our gas powered vehicles we may find that we just don’t have enough electricity available in town every day , which might result in that gloomy word, “breakdowns.”
And then what do we do?
I think the council’s goal of going all-electric is virtuous to say the least, but the 2030 timeline is too early. The devastating effects of increased climate change are a big global problem that needs to be tackled, but haste produces waste.
Also, even if this advice wants to lead the way in emissions control, the net effect will be minor. If we reduce our CO2 levels, it will be just a tiny dot on a world map. If all American cities took similar measures, it would certainly help. Once that country complies, all we have to do is convince a few countries like China, India, and Russia to see things our way.
And now, a bit of cynicism about the goals of city staff. We are billed on our monthly electricity consumption – the more we use, the higher our hourly rates. So the more we convert to electric, the more we will have to pay. Peak times are 4-9 p.m., when fares are highest. This is when most of us come home from work, turn on the lights, turn up the thermostats or air conditioners, start cooking, turn on the stove, oven, and televisions. After dinner the kids may need a hot water bath and many of us use the dishwasher.
The utility department sends our bills, and I guess they’re happy with the money coming in. However, each year, utilities remit approximately $20 million from our utility bills to the city’s general fund. So the city makes more money on our utility bills. In other words, the tariffs we are charged for electricity go, in part, to the city’s general fund to be spent according to the wishes of the city authorities.
More money in the town coffer was surely not the motivation for an electric crusade in town, but I think it will be a nice source of money for the town.
And the electricity problem isn’t Palo Alto’s only problem.
As Dan Walters, a CalMatters columnist, wrote this week: “The California administration is committed to making the state carbon-free by converting electricity generation to wind and solar power, replacing gasoline-powered vehicles and diesel by electric cars and trucks, and phase out natural gas in homes and businesses.
Walters goes on to say: “This massive conversion would place huge new demands on an electricity grid that already lacks heat on some hot summer days when air conditioning systems are running full blast – days that climate change will make more frequent, by the way.”
But as long as the objective is good, I return to my initial question. Will we have enough equipment (transformers and power lines) to run an all-electric city by 2030? I am not afraid. And if we go all electric and the electricity is not available, then I ask again, what do we do?
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