UC Berkeley researchers link electric grid limitations and racial inequities

  • Sep 14, 2021
  • Daily Californian

Campus researchers in the Energy and Resources Group, or ERG, released a study Sept. 13 showing that electrical grid limitations could exacerbate existing racial inequities in California.

The study was authored by Anna Brockway, campus doctoral candidate in the ERG; Duncan Callaway, campus ERG associate professor; and campus graduate student Jenny Conde. It was published in the journal Nature Energy, according to a campus press release.

In the process of conducting their research, the authors studied electrical grid infrastructure data from California’s two largest utilities: PG&E and Southern California Edison. In particular, Conde said they looked at the grid infrastructure and then compared that information to demographic census data.

According to the press release, utility companies typically limit the number of households allowed to electrify because increased loads can cause high temperatures and voltages. Installing household solar power and electric vehicle charging stations are just a few sources of an increased current flow.

Less than 50% of households in a single electric circuit are able to transition to renewable energy, the study notes.

“If someone wants to put solar on their house and they don’t have the circuit capacity, … what typically happens now is that the utilities essentially just upgrade the system to let that connection happen anyway,” Brockway said. “To what extent are we going to keep upgrading?”

After examining the circuit capacities, the researchers drew connections between their findings and the demographic data due to access variations in the two utilities’ territories, the study noted.

They found that households in predominantly Black neighborhoods had “disproportionately less access” to solar power because of circuit capacity, according to the study.

“The total circuit capacity for generation decreases with increasing percentages of Black-identifying residents, and is disproportionately lower for (census block groups) with Black-identifying populations than for other racial and ethnic groups,” the study reads.

The study concluded that California will need “tremendous” investments in grid capacity to meet its decarbonization goals. Brockway said that as the state moves forward, limitations in access to solar power are not yet fully accounted for.

Conde also noted that the data they used in the study is publicly available and cities can determine for themselves which areas are impacted before communicating with utilities and the state.

“The ultimate goal would be to make sure utilities know where the problem is and have them address it,” Conde said. “We can’t build a sustainable economy if solar panels or electric vehicles or other distributed energy resources are only accessible to people of certain income levels or people of a certain race.”

Contact Riley Cooke at [email protected], and follow her on Twitter at @rrileycooke.