DOE To Propose Efficient Transformer Rules

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One of the big “gotchas” anti-EV people will try to pull in an argument is that power is lost as it’s transmitted through the grid. People who don’t understand the argument at all usually fail from the beginning, trying to include thermal losses at combustion power plants. This argument doesn’t apply to most renewables, and we’re trying to get away from combustion, so that argument falls flat. But, the remaining losses are a real phenomenon that totals 2-13% of generated electricity, depending on the state. The US national average is about 6%.

So, it’s clearly not a big argument to be made against EVs, and it’s one you can eliminate completely by charging your EV with excess solar power (skipping the grid entirely). But, just because it isn’t a good argument against EVs doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter. A 6% loss still adds up to 69 trillion BTUs, and doing things to reduce those losses would still be an environmental win.

So, some new rules the U.S. Department of Energy wants could end up being great for the industry and the environment. DOE’s proposed new energy-efficiency standards for distribution transformers will bolster the resiliency of America’s power grid, lower utility bills, and significantly decrease domestic carbon-dioxide (CO2) emissions. This strategic step will not only conserve energy but also cut down on costs by diversifying transformer core technology.

The Department of Energy’s proposed timeline intends for most transformers to be equipped with energy efficient amorphous steel cores by 2027, replacing those traditionally made from grain-oriented electrical steel. If adopted, the new rule will have a huge impact on the electricity industry and set in motion an unprecedented wave of sustainability.

“The Biden-Harris Administration continues to use every means available to reduce America’s carbon footprint while strengthening our security posture and lowering energy costs,” said U.S. Secretary of Energy Jennifer M. Granholm. “Efficient distribution transformers enhance the resilience of our nation’s energy grid and make it possible to deliver affordable electrical power to consumers in every corner of America. By modernizing their energy-conservation standards, we’re ensuring that this critical component of our electricity system operates as efficiently and inexpensively as possible.”

According to DOE, the implementation of this proposed rule would result in a decrease of CO2 emissions by an astonishing 340 million metric tons over the next three decades – equivalent to the yearly output from 90 coal-fired power plants. Furthermore, it is projected that there will be 10 quads worth of energy saved and $15 billion dollars reduced in spending for 30 years’ worth of shipments.

The Administration is taking proactive steps to tackle short-term supply chain issues and bolster domestic production of essential electric grid components. In June, President Biden employed the Defense Production Act to speed up manufacturing within America’s clean energy industries. As a follow-up in October, DOE issued an inquiry requesting input from the general public on how best to utilize these new powers. After gathering comments until November 30th, they are now carefully reviewing them all before deciding their next move forward.

Furthermore, due to the scarcity of conventional grain-oriented steel, DOE is devoted to diversifying domestic steel production in areas where output can be grown. For instance, amorphous steel used in modern transformers has become an area of focus for expansion.

The Department of Energy is working to finalize the execution guidance for rebate programs that were established by the Energy Act of 2020, which are funded from President Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. The program motivates consumers to replace their energy-inefficient distribution transformers and extended product systems with more efficient replacements in order to save energy and money.

Distribution transformers are an essential component of the electrical power system, as they reduce voltage before it is distributed to customers. These devices can be seen on utility poles in communities across America and are primarily purchased by electric utilities and commercial or industrial companies. In other words, a distribution transformer alters the type of electricity that is delivered for use.

DOE has proposed a rule to revise energy conservation standards for three categories of distribution transformers: liquid-immersed, low-voltage dry-type, and medium voltage dry-types. With the aim of gathering views from stakeholders on this matter, DOE will host a public meeting on Thursday 16th February 2023.

The Appliance and Equipment Standards Program by the Department of Energy (DOE) regulates energy conservation standards in more than 60 categories of appliances and equipment. Thanks to these regulations, American customers have saved an incredible $63 billion on their utility bills just within 2015. By 2030, total operating cost savings from all DOE’s standards since 1987 will exceed a whopping $2 trillion dollars. The products that are covered by such stringent rules represent about 90% for home energy use, 60% for commercial buildings’ energy consumption, as well as 30% when it comes to industrial applications.

This Could End Up Mattering (& Helping) More As Solar Spreads

One of the things that’s particularly important about this standard is how it could have an outsized effect on solar installations’ efficiency. Large-scale solar farms tend to sell their electricity to utilities along high voltage lines already, but small-scale residential and commercial installations put power into the grid at lower voltages, and that’s where most of today’s losses are.

As power companies replace aging transformers with more efficient ones, the amount of excess solar electricity from home and business solar installs that gets put to productive use will go up, effectively serving as a multiplier for the good every panel does. It’s hard to argue with that!

The only downside is that this process will take time. It’s not every day or even every decade that you see the power company replace a transformer in your neighborhood, with replacement usually only happening when something goes wrong, like a lightning strike blowing one up. So, better transformers will go into use as old ones die, making for a slow process. But, this still beats the heck out of replacing old transformers with inefficient transformers.

Featured image: two types of transformers, those at high voltage lines and distribution transformers that lower the voltage to that which enters homes. Photos by U.S. Department of Energy. 

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Jennifer Sensiba

Jennifer Sensiba is a long time efficient vehicle enthusiast, writer, and photographer. She grew up around a transmission shop, and has been experimenting with vehicle efficiency since she was 16 and drove a Pontiac Fiero. She likes to get off the beaten path in her "Bolt EAV" and any other EVs she can get behind the wheel or handlebars of with her wife and kids. You can find her on Twitter here, Facebook here, and YouTube here.

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