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Climate Change Requires Us to Face Facts; Employ Common Sense and Logic for Success

W. Alan Snook, II's picture
President GRID20/20, Inc.

Given 25 years of entrepreneurial business experience at many levels, my daily focus remains on building relationships, supporting customers and team members, and holding tightly to core business...

  • Member since 2021
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  • Apr 24, 2021

This item is part of the Special Issue - 2021-04 - Innovation in the Power Industry, click here for more

The concept of Earth Day presents so many great opportunities.  Yet, Greenhouse Gas emissions reduction, Electric Vehicle adoption, Distributed Energy adoption (DER), Energy Efficiency, Grid Reliability, and Fires/Wildfires are all interconnected; but most people are not aware of, or are not grasping this important understanding.

Electricity grids were erected many decades ago.  In turn, our distribution transformer fleets -- which are a fundamental element of our grids -- are now several decades old as well.   In layperson terms, this means that our increasing grid-edge focus, developments, and advancements (e.g., EVs, Rooftop Solar DER, etc) is being forged upon an aging infrastructure.  While the effort to effect Climate Change is valiant, we cannot overlook the impacts, risks, and unsavory outcomes that are imminent -- without proper forethought and actions being taken to ensure our success.  Otherwise, amidst our efforts, we are posturing ourselves for guaranteed by-product failures.

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While there are many ways to achieve reduced GHG for addressing Climate Change, it's hard to be an expert in all areas.   One critical niche demanding attention is the often-overlooked, integral role of Distribution Transformers.   This aging class of assets is now being loaded/overloaded by a series of never-imagined, unplanned electricity demand, now stemming from residential EV charging stations, Reverse Energy caused by rooftop solar, cryptocurrency mining, marijuana growing, ongoing power theft, etc.   Typically, our utility operators are unaware of this additional unplanned grid-edge load/overload until a trouble call, or a power outage, or a fire/wildfire is reported.  This historically reactive posture by our operators must be reversed to PROACTIVE; if we hope to achieve positive Climate Change goals while not inadvertently causing unwanted problems and/or public safety events (disasters) in the process.

One residential EV charging station introduces 1 - 2.5 homes of UNPLANNED electricity demand on the upstream transformer serving that home.  This added unplanned load is capable of causing OVERLOAD to the respective transformer, which in due time results in transformer failure = outages = potential fire = potential wildfire.   Imagine what happens when two (or three) nearby residents served by the same transformer all install residential EV charging stations....the overload escalates dramatically, and the likelihood of outages/fires/wildfires escalates as well. Setting the stage for costly disasters.  

Rooftop solar is a welcomed form of Distributed Energy Resource (DER).  However, our transformer fleets were never conceived nor built to handle both forward AND reverse energy load/overload impact.   NO ONE knows the long term impact of reverse energy overload on transformers.  But common sense and logic tells us that 'OVERLOAD' of any kind -- forward AND/OR reverse -- is NOT going to end well for the aging transformers being impacted.  

In the case of both EV charging stations AND rooftop solar DER, it's important to realize that our transformers are being burdened with UNPLANNED impacts. Most transformers were deployed decades ago when operators did not have insight into today's active grid-edge changes.  Additionally, all transformers are designed with a necessary 'cool down' period being necessary to preserve the asset's longevity.  But, EV charging stations AND DER are likely to disallow transformers to cool down.  These day in/day out occurrences are the recipe for substantial transformer failures...outages...potential asset fires...potential wildfires.  So, while trying to do a 'good thing' with EVs and DER, we are actually setting the stage for a series of 'bad things' that are increasingly imminent.

As for Wildfires, the GHG emissions they spew is alarming.  The Nov 2018 Paradise, California wildfire released an estimated 3.9 MILLION Metric Tons of GHG emissions. The 2020 California Wildfires released an estimated 112+ MILLION Metric Tons of GHG emissions into the atmosphere....that is about 1.6X as much GHG emissions as all 15+ Million fossil fuel powered autos in CA.   (Think about that...if we achieved 100% EVs in CA, the annual wildfires alone would STILL MORE THAN OFFSET the GHG emissions 'gains' stemming from this phenomenal EV adoption achievement!)

The point is, for us to be successful with addressing Climate Change, we have LOTS to do.  But in the process of doing LOTS, we MUST be mindful of the components that are necessary for realizing TRUE success.   At present, we are undeniably on course to Overload our transformer fleets with massive UNPLANNED impacts from EV adoption, rooftop solar adoption, etc.   That impact alone will set the stage for massive Outages, potential grid asset fires, potential wildfires, MORE GHG emissions via the wildfires, human injury/loss of life, massive economic setbacks, utility bankruptcy (e.g., PG&E), etc.

Just causing EVs to be adopted; just causing rooftop solar to be installed; just moving to clean energy generation is NOT going to cause the beneficial Climate Change impacts that we seek.   Rather, we must ensure that our efforts are properly thought-out, that proper preparations have been taken, and that proper execution is achieved.  This comprehensive approach is PARAMOUNT to our success.   

At present...the reality is...too many leaders and interest groups are STILL overlooking the fundamental flaws in the aspiring Climate Change plans.   We cannot overlook the fundamental limitations of our electricity grid, nor the costly impacts caused by grid asset failures, wildfires, etc. if we are SERIOUS about making a meaningful NET difference in this world.   Earth Day is a wonderful idea...pursuing Climate Change goals is a worthwhile initiative...but common sense, logic, and reality MUST be at the forefront of our process.  Otherwise, we will simply be jumping from the frying pan, into the fire.   


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Thank W. Alan for the Post!
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Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Apr 21, 2021

However, our transformer fleets were never conceived nor built to handle both forward AND reverse energy load/overload impact.   NO ONE knows the long term impact of reverse energy overload on transformers. 

Is this question/issue more pronounced in the U.S., or is it a global issue? ANd to that effect, are there any nations that are handling these shifts to the grid in a more forward-looking way today? 

W. Alan Snook, II's picture
W. Alan Snook, II on Apr 21, 2021

Matt - Thanks for your question.  With regard to DER penetration, we have been primarily focused on North America; although other areas around the globe have certainly undertaken substantial DER efforts.  In North America, we believe that most transformer fleets were deployed well in advance of today's meaningful DER penetration (a development which is clearly expanding).  So that operators can avoid increased asset failures, we contend that empirical data yields accurate/reliable/timely/granular/unique intra-grid visibility.  AMI is unable to fully solve our operator's need for consistently reliable intra-grid data.  Since wholesale transformer fleet change-outs is unrealistic economically, time-wise, and power interruption-wise, the best way to handle is with cost-effective, fast-to-install, specially designed intra-grid sensors.  That is the quickest and most viable solution for reversing this otherwise quietly emerging problem -- regardless of venue.   

Peter Key's picture
Peter Key on May 1, 2021

I don't think the need to replace distribution transformers as more DERs come on line is a "quietly emerging problem." I did some articles on it a few years back and the utilities I spoke to were aware of it then and were forecasting things like which customers were likely to get EVs and home solar units so they could plan how to modernize their grids.

There were predictions that grid equipment in residential neighborhoods would melt down last summer due to the large number of people working from home and that didn't happen. I think utilities are aware of the work that needs to be done and are planning to do it.

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