Several months ago, the architect Eric Morrill received an email from a San Francisco couple looking to install an induction range. They were having a baby and wanted to get rid of their gas model and its noxious fumes. Complicating the project, their single-family home had a pre-1970 electrical panel that would have to be upgraded.
These days in California, a project like this—pulling out an electric panel, adding one that can handle more electrical appliances, and, in some cases, upgrading utility lines to accommodate them—can involve a months-long wait for the local utility to approve and complete the work. So Morrill’s design and construction firm, which focuses on electrifying and decarbonizing homes, has devised workarounds to move forward while that process plays out.
A couple of months after the request, the new stove and the beginnings of the new electric panel were installed and connected. Morrill still hasn’t heard from the utility on the necessary paperwork, though.
When it goes smoothly, connecting new homes, energy projects and electric appliances to California’s grid—known as interconnection or energization, depending on the project—is a formulaic process that doesn’t draw a lot of attention outside the energy and utility industry. But over the last year, the delays have drawn intense scrutiny from California housing advocates, builders, city governments and environmentalists.
Projects have taken months, or even years, to get linked up to the grid, which these critics say is slowing down much-needed construction and the clean energy projects needed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
“We can have all the ambitious goals we want, but if we can’t get people connected to the grid, it could all fall apart,” said Laura Feinstein, sustainability and resilience policy director at the San Francisco Bay Area Planning and Urban Research Association, or SPUR. “We really need to solve this.”
While interconnection has never been speedy, utilities offer numerous reasons for the ever longer timelines. That list includes supply chain delays for equipment (electrical transformers, which change the voltage of electricity as it travels through different lines, are in short supply), maintenance needs related to the state’s wildfires, and a difficulty in keeping up with spiking demand as Californians embrace solar arrays, electric vehicles and other grid-reliant projects.
The delays have affected clean energy projects of all sizes, from huge solar installations that need to connect to large-scale transmission lines, to the replacement of a single stove that might add more load to a tapped-out local electric line.
An Impenetrable Process
In late April, a group of 35 organizations sent a letter to the governor’s office and the legislature calling for action on what they referred to as an “interconnection crisis.” State lawmakers have proposed changes to the process in a flurry of bills, and several measures have moved forward ahead of an early June legislative deadline for passing a bill in the house where it was proposed. All will be considered more broadly before a September cutoff for the approval of new laws in the current legislative session.
Utilities aren’t alone in causing the delays, but they have been the focus of many of the proposed solutions, from setting target dates for the process to be completed to requiring annual reporting on how long each hookup takes on average. The legislation could add transparency and timelines to a process that has been described by those concerned as a “black box.” Yet others worry that adding regulatory requirements could make the process even more sluggish.
The stream of bills intended to speed connections to the electric grid—more than a half dozen—is “unusual,” according to Woody Hastings, a program manager at the Climate Center, a California-based environmental advocacy group. But obstacles to connecting new projects have hit a number of industries vital to the state’s future.
California needs to build—and provide electricity for—more than 2.5 million new homes and apartments by 2030 to address its dire housing shortage. Meanwhile, the state is forging ahead with some of the most ambitious climate policies in the nation, which require more sectors of the economy to electrify and for that electricity to come largely from renewable resources.
Working toward a target of carbon neutrality by 2045, the state said this year that it would not allow the sale of gasoline-powered cars after 2035, and numerous local jurisdictions have established standards to rid buildings of gas appliances and the climate-warming emissions associated with them. All told, electrifying California’s economy by the 2045 target date will require the state to add significant capacity and quadruple the amount of wind and solar on its grid.
Slowdowns in adding new renewable projects or swapping gas appliances for electric ones would cut into the emissions reductions the state has committed itself to achieving by 2030, according to a 2022 report from the California Air Resources Board.
In data supplied in February to State Sen. Scott Wiener, whose district encompasses San Francisco, Pacific Gas & Electric, California’s largest utility, identified 319 new commercial and multifamily buildings that were ready to be energized. Owners of 95 of those properties had been waiting for more than 90 days. Southern California Edison, another major utility, identified 111 such buildings, with the longest wait times extending to 60 days.
Nationwide, logjams in the process to connect large renewable installations have become so significant that the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission created a task force in 2021 to work with state regulators on potential solutions.
As California lawmakers weigh a raft of bills to address the problem, SPUR is supporting SB410, a measure sponsored by the Coalition of California Utility Employees and authored by Sen. Josh Becker, a Democrat. The bill would require state utility regulators to lay out average and maximum times for utilities to complete new projects and for the utilities to report timelines and the staffing needed for each one. Another bill that passed the Senate, SB319, would also require annual reporting of average timelines for interconnection.
Some clean energy and housing advocates have rallied behind AB50, which has been approved by the California Assembly and would require regulators to develop reasonable average timelines. Some supported SB83, which would have required regulators to establish a maximum time period for utilities to complete new connections but did not make it out of committee. Several other bills with a variety of permutations have also been considered.
SPUR began paying attention to the interconnection delays when it was lobbying for standards that would require a switch to cleaner heating appliances in the Bay Area, Feinstein said. The organization realized that delays in swapping out electric panels for models with higher capacity or upgrading utility distribution lines so they could handle more load could slow the transition from gas to electric.
The technologies needed for that conversion are in place, as are the local rules that SPUR has promoted, but roadblocks remain. “We can do this,” said Feinstein, “but we need the connections to the utility to work well and be affordable. And right now, they’re not.” Most of the legislation, however, zeroes in on delays rather than costs.
Rather than waiting for the utility to assess the need for new lines and then send out a crew to install them, Morrill’s firm, All-Electric California, tries to avoid unnecessary “service upgrades” by assessing a home’s genuine electric needs and determining if its existing panel can handle the added demand from a new appliance. He says the standard calculations prescribed by the electric code can inflate the size of the equipment that’s needed.
Even if an electrical upgrade is required, as with the San Francisco couple looking to buy an electric stove, his company can move forward with the installation. The firm uses equipment to monitor the load on the old lines while waiting for the utility to act on the needed upgrade.
But numerous groups argue that broader solutions are needed. The California Environmental Justice Alliance, a coalition of 10 groups, has not endorsed any of the pending legislation, but its energy equity program manager, Alexis Sutterman, says the alliance supports policies that bring greater transparency to the interconnection process and impose time frames for how long it should take.
Hastings of the Climate Center said it would make sense for utilities to provide credits to customers on their monthly bills if certain timelines are not met.
Corey Smith, executive director of the nonprofit Housing Action Coalition, suggests that utilities outsource work if they are unable to process applications and complete construction quickly enough. Communities such as Fresno and Eureka have raised concerns about delays that keep people from moving into completed homes, in addition to anxiety about the slow pace of connecting projects that decarbonize the grid.
Smith’s organization helped sponsor SB83 after working on passage of a 2022 law that requires cities and counties to respond to building permit applications within a specified period of time. He says that “multiple steps of the process” for getting new housing up and running are broken—“through and through.” While the blame doesn’t fall solely on utilities, which are also contending with dangerous wildfires and limited resources, he said, the process needs to change.
Ben Gallagher, a spokesperson for Southern California Edison, said the utility does not have a position on any of the bills but is working with legislators and regulators to identify where improvements can be made. Anthony Wagner, communications manager for San Diego Gas & Electric, said the utility was monitoring the legislation but also takes no position. He maintains that SDG&E is “one of the fastest” in completing utility interconnections. In the data the utility provided to Wiener’s office, SDG&E said it was able to energize projects within 30 days “with few exceptions.”
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PG&E, which has received the most scrutiny related to interconnections, asserts that the proposed bills would set “arbitrary and unrealistic timelines that compromise safety.” In an email, the utility told Inside Climate News that it had nearly doubled its investment in new connections over the last five years and was working to connect projects as quickly as possible.
Large corporations often push back against increased regulation. But Morrill, who spends his days helping people decarbonize their homes, also urges caution in considering new policies.
“I think regulation is critical,” he said. “But we need to make sure that we’re not spending extra paperwork time that didn’t really add value to the process.” He said he would like to see more standardization of permitting and requirements across jurisdictions, which he believes would reduce the administrative burden on those doing the actual work of switching out equipment.
Hastings of the Climate Center expects legislators to enact at least one solution by California’s mid-September deadline for passage of bills introduced in the current session. The sheer number of bills, he said, shows that the political will exists to address the issue.
Smith, too, said the number of bills was “an indication about how big of a problem the interconnection piece has become.”
“I hope that a solution makes it to the finish line that moves the needle,” he said.
<div class="post-author-bio"> <div class="image-holder"> <img width="300" height="300" src="https://insideclimatenews.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/06/Emma-headshot_400x400-300x300.jpg" class="attachment-thumbnail-medium-square size-thumbnail-medium-square" alt="Emma Merchant" decoding="async" srcset="https://insideclimatenews.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/06/Emma-headshot_400x400-300x300.jpg 300w, https://insideclimatenews.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/06/Emma-headshot_400x400-150x150.jpg 150w, https://insideclimatenews.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/06/Emma-headshot_400x400-64x64.jpg 64w, https://insideclimatenews.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/06/Emma-headshot_400x400.jpg 400w" sizes="(max-width: 300px) 100vw, 300px"> </div> <!-- /.image-holder --> <div class="content"> <h3 class="author-name"> <a href="https://insideclimatenews.org/profile/emma-foehringer-merchant/"> Emma Foehringer Merchant </a> </h3> <h4 class="profile-subtitle">Contributor</h4> Emma Foehringer Merchant is a journalist who has covered environmental issues ranging from disasters to wonky energy regulations to air pollution. She’s reported on the environment and energy for publications including The Boston Globe Magazine, The New Republic, Vice News, and Grist. Most recently, Emma covered clean energy as a staff writer for Greentech Media and helped alums of that organization form a new publication called Canary Media. She’s attending MIT’s Graduate Program in Science Writing and holds a bachelor’s degree in environmental analysis from Pomona College, where she lived through a California drought while studying how climate change is impacting the state’s environment and people. </div> <!-- /.bio --> </div> <!-- /.post-author-bio -->