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About this blog: So much is right — and wrong — about what is happening in Palo Alto. In this blog I want to discuss all that with you. I know many residents care about this town, and I want to explore our collective interests to help ...  (More)

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Is Palo Alto Utilities ready for our increasing demand for more electricity?

Uploaded: Sep 26, 2022
The city wants Palo Altans to have all-electric homes. Can the Utilities Dept. even handle an increased demand?

That’s the question I’ve been asking several city officials.

Their answers: We’re working on it. We are evaluating it. We will have a report out in a couple of months or so.

Discouraging to say the least. If the demand for more electricity overpowers the city’s capabilities to provide more, then we will have to figure out what to do. The city utilities department is studying how to plan for increased demand -- at least from last spring. But no report yet.


The following is a brief (and paraphrased) summary of a conversation I recently had with
Catherine Elvert, the Utility Department’s spokesperson. She is very careful about what she states, but I guess that is her job. Nevertheless, it was hard to pin her down or get any specific numbers. I prefer more specific numbers.

D –The Utilities Department staff is preparing a report. When will the Utilities Commission, the City Council and the residents will we see such a report?

E -- When we have completed our report.

D -- And when will that be?

E -- Later this year, I think.

D --There seem to be two major distribution questions, which the Utilities Advisory Commission raised early this year. Are our transmission lines adequate to handle an increased load and do our transformers need to be upgraded so they can adequately carry an increased customer demand for electricity.

E -- We are looking into it.

D -- If we have upgrades, how much will that cost?

E --We are looking into it and whether we will include those numbers in our report. But we plan to get the numbers, although we don’t have any yet.

D --And when, again, will the report be ready and sent to council?

E --We are figuring out a date.

D -- Any estimations of cost?

E --We have to evaluate that and we will know after the report is completed.

D -- In the millions or billions?

E – We are evaluating that.


I am concerned because the city is urging, urging us to have all-electric homes and purchase all-electric cars. The push is really focusing right now for heat pump water heaters instead of gas water heaters.

The way I see it, if our electric use scoots up, and our equipment cannot handle a big increase in demand, we have a big problem. We know from our four recent blackouts how many of us were affected by no electricity – for short and long periods.

I also have to wonder how much urgency is attached to getting a report back to the council – and to us. And a report is not a solution, it’s just a start on what to do next.

Cost should be a big concern, since the city council now is active in deciding whether Palo
Alto should provide Fiber to the Home (FTTH) (also known as Fiber to the Premises [FTTP) for all residents who sign up for it (at an estimated $40/month). The total cost to install fiber is an estimated $140 million, ($40 million higher than originally estimated a year ago – and all this before a shovelful of dirt has been removed. I predict double or triple the estimated costs

I had a nice discussion with A.C. Johnston, chairman of the Utilities Advisory Commission, who quickly acknowledged the city staff is “studying the issue” of available electricity if demand increases.

I pointed out the city is on a big campaign to go electric, suggesting we all get rid of out gas water heaters and replace them with electric ones. Also, our utility bills are filled with info advocating purchase of electric cars. “If the (all-electric) campaign is successful, and if the city decides to pursue both -- an improvement in our transmission. lines and transformers, as well as FTTH,” he said, “we are talking about real issues -- the capacity and distribution will have to increase. Your concerns are reasonable,” Johnston added.

Johnston said he expected a staff report in the next couple of months

So how can the city (that’s US!) afford to pay for both FTTH and upgrade our transmission lines and transformers, because the latter will probably cost a similar amount. If I were a council member, I would vote for only upgrading our electric transmitters and transformers before even offering FTTH, which AT&T and Comcast are already ready providing, and they know what they are doing. Plus, our staff has little experience in overseeing a FTTH service.

The city, by the way, has a self-interest in going all-electric; our use will increase, bringing more money into the city treasury. The city also acknowledges that if enough people sign up for FTTH, they will get monthly payments from residents year after year. And the more electric we use, our tier-rate costs go up.

Follow the money.

Of course, I understand that to help control climate, electricity uses far less fossil fuel than gas, and will help us become less dependent on fossil fuels, which is a great thing. But we do have to analyze costs v. benefits – not all of us are rich. Is FTTH worth the cost? Many in this town are retired and on fixed incomes, and right now the stock market has precipitously dropped.

I would like some concrete dates and data from staff – and have the council set deadlines. We have an emerging crisis on hand. As the city keeps pushing to go all-electric, our commission has worries about whether the city can handle a big demand. It would also have to hire consultants and contractors – and we all know that costs a lot.

We all need to know and plan accordingly. Why is it good to change one’s heating, water heaters, and purchase EV vehicles (which collectively can easily come to five—or even six-digit expenses). I certainly don’t want us to convert to all -electric and then run short of ways to get that electricity to our homes. Do you?
What is it worth to you?


Posted by MyFeelz, a resident of JLS Middle School,
on Sep 26, 2022 at 6:09 pm

MyFeelz is a registered user.

Until solar powered cars are produced en masse and are affordable for everyone, mandating electric cars will never happen. We can use LESS gas by using a combustion engine sparingly.

I'm already using strictly electricity in my home and don't have plans to change it.

Fiber optic internet service is a backwards move. Palo Alto's Fiber Net is not the only solution to bringing internet to everyone who wants it. All it will do is create more competition. I'm all for competition and how it can work to the consumer's advantage, but $40/mo is TODAY'S competitive pricing. What will it be 10 years from now? I smell a boondoggle in the barbecue pit, and it burns up fast and will need a constant supply of dollars to keep it running.

If Palo Alto REALLY wants to be innovative, try spending $500 million dollars to solve the housing crisis, instead of bringing us more of what we don't need. Internet speed hasn't been a thing since the early 00's.

My first computer was an IBM with 35 mg hard drive. Yes that is MGs not GB's. The only window operating was the one I looked out of from my desk while waiting for a page to load. I could make a pot of coffee, fry two eggs and make hashbrowns from scratch while waiting. So, while faster internet is "necessary", from my perspective as long as I don't have to use my landline to connect to a 256k modem, anything is an improvement.

Why Palo Alto thinks they can build a better mousetrap is beyond me. How many people had outages while we had them this summer? Even in the high desert they had no outages, because there aren't as many squirrels (?) and the people with their hands on the red button aren't as itchy as we are here. Our inexperience and ineptitude was showing, big time.

In other words -- it ain't broke. DON'T FIX IT.

Posted by Online Name, a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland,
on Sep 26, 2022 at 11:58 pm

Online Name is a registered user.

The above non-answers reflect the same non-answers to specific questions about the proposed Fiber system.

Speaking of readiness, years of complaints about the unreliable power outage reporting system seem to have finally reached the Utility Department and City Hall and CC will start considering ta $625,000 budget item for a new and hopefully improved one.

And they ignore recent articles on practical problems NOW statewide -- forget about locally -- in satisfying CURRENT demand because A) California's bidding against other Western states for supply and B) demand is NOW stressing the system so badly CA just asked all EV owners to charge their vehicles from 8AM - 2PM -- which is when people are at work or at school and not have access to a charging station.

That's before we wholesale conversions, big local spending projects to subsidize our appliance, HVAC and vehicle purchases ....

Posted by Lucien Petrovsky, a resident of Community Center,
on Sep 27, 2022 at 7:05 am

Lucien Petrovsky is a registered user.

This unrealistic pipedream about going all-electric is a key element of President Biden's Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill which allocates $3B towards the effort.

If he is serious and not simply talking out of his hat, Biden will need to allocate far more money for municipal research and implementation, not only for Palo Alto but for every city, township, and unincorporated area (counties) in the entire United States.

This all-electric concept will be impractical, extremely costly, and is just another overly-idealistic delusion on the part of progressives who cannot see the forest through the trees.

Posted by Bystander, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Sep 27, 2022 at 7:55 am

Bystander is a registered user.

This is exactly the big problem, the elephant in the room, a prime example of the right hand not knowing what the left hand is doing, putting the cart before the horse, and any other cliche that seems appropriate.

Posted by Lenora Winters, a resident of Old Palo Alto,
on Sep 27, 2022 at 11:35 am

Lenora Winters is a registered user.

What is the point of Palo Alto being relentlessly eco-conscious when these proposed adaptations will have minimal (aka zero) environmental impact in terms of the big picture?

Tell China, India, and other coal-burning countries to do the same...then we'll talk.

Posted by Online Name, a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland,
on Sep 27, 2022 at 5:48 pm

Online Name is a registered user.

"What is the point of Palo Alto being relentlessly eco-conscious..."

So our "leaders" and city staffers can win awards to burnish their resumes... It's been happening for years and seems to bear little relationship to whether a project ever gets finished or ever works.

Posted by Mike Shepard, a resident of Midtown,
on Sep 30, 2022 at 10:27 am

Mike Shepard is a registered user.

After months/years of study, it takes time for PA city officials to arrive at a concrete conclusion and by then, the scenario has most likely changed.

They are either very cautious or an incompetent group of individuals.

Posted by Mildred Johnson, a resident of Crescent Park,
on Sep 30, 2022 at 11:34 am

Mildred Johnson is a registered user.

"So our "leaders" and city staffers can win awards to burnish their resumes... It's been happening for years and seems to bear little relationship to whether a project ever gets finished or ever works."

^ For what purpose? Outside of pursuing a county supervisor role or moving on to another city staff, they will never get any higher in the world of politics or municipal administration.

[Portion removed.]

Posted by Bill Bucy, a resident of Barron Park,
on Oct 1, 2022 at 8:41 am

Bill Bucy is a registered user.

Evasive answers to perfectly reasonable questions from a member of the public erode confidence in the utility agency and its ability to meet the challenges of the future.

How about: "Your questions are good ones, but we don't yet have answers to all of them. Addressing them piecemeal might end up misleading the public because each factor impacts the others. Our report, which we hope to issue later this year, will be as comprehensive as possible and provide solid information for policy-makers and the public
. Feel free to check back on the timing of the report."

Taint rocket science, ya know.

Posted by Annette, a resident of College Terrace,
on Oct 3, 2022 at 7:32 pm

Annette is a registered user.

For the present, I think the answers provided by the CPAU spokesperson can be translated into a succinct NO. That may change over time, but for now we residents have good reason to be both wary and concerned. I think the most realistic resource on issues of this sort is Sherry Listgarten. She's smart, straightforward, and credible. I will wait for her to say Palo Alto has reached its goal.

In the meanwhile, we will continue to wait for CPAU to take the last step so that the solar we installed can be operational! We are trying to go green but waiting months (nearly 6 now) for this last step is not the best way to get residents to encourage their friends and neighbors to invest in solar.

Posted by Jennifer, a resident of another community,
on Oct 3, 2022 at 9:14 pm

Jennifer is a registered user.

Diana is a realist, and Sherry is a climate change activist. Anything further said would inappropriate and against my better judgment.

Posted by Charlene Locke, a resident of Midtown,
on Oct 4, 2022 at 7:13 am

Charlene Locke is a registered user.

An all-electric city will have its inherent vulnerabilities and until there are fail-safe systems to prevent a total blackout, count me out.

Posted by Carlton Beecham, a resident of Barron Park,
on Oct 5, 2022 at 11:36 am

Carlton Beecham is a registered user.

With no clear-cut master plan (other than 'visionary' pipedreams), the PACC should not proceed with this endeavor.

The PACC is essentially 'out to lunch' on many important municipal issues.

Incompetence is their trademark.

Posted by Mark Lawrence, a resident of Midtown,
on Oct 6, 2022 at 2:14 pm

Mark Lawrence is a registered user.

Diana, I can answer most of the questions that your City spokesperson could not. Since I live around the corner from you, I suggest we walk a couple of blocks down Cowper street to where the lines are overhead, and I can point out exactly how undersized every piece of the distribution infrastructure is. Briefly,
* primary (high voltage) lines are 4kV, need to be upgraded to 12kV, so need new insulators.
* primary wires are, to use the technical term, teensy. Need to replace with new, fatter wires to handle the loads of all-electric homes
* transformers (that step high voltage down to 120/240) are small, few, and far between. Typically there are two of 25kVA or 35kVA capacity each, per block. We'll need one of those for every 3 or 4 all-electric homes.
* secondary (120/240V) wires along the pole lines are, like the primaries, too small, as are the drop wires to the homes. These wires are much smaller than what you are required, by the electrical code, to install from your panel to where the drop attaches.

So we need bigger insulators, bigger wires, more and bigger transformers. And we're going to put all this stuff up on those old poles? That makes no sense, we need to build the network underground (Diana's home and mine have underground service now.) If the city is serious about going all electric, we need a plan for this rebuild, and how to pay for it. I doubt that the $140M proposed for fiber to compete with AT&T and Comcast and Verizon will cover it, but fiber-optic networking won't help address climate change.

Of course, the residential electric distribution infrastructure that we see is only part of the problem. Those lines are fed by "substations" that are in tur fed by the city's main power switchyard using higher voltage lines (60kV or 115kV). Presumably they will need upgrading also.

Continuing "up the tree," the entire city electric supply comes in on a single high voltage line along the bay; there is no backup. One plane crash and we're in the dark,

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