Transformers: A Decarbonization Problem in Disguise

By Franco Faraudo

You have heard it before. Our buildings are significant contributors to carbon emissions worldwide. To address this issue, we must implement numerous changes. The primary focus is transitioning more buildings from natural gas to electricity for heating purposes. This shift is crucial as it enables us to utilize renewable energy sources such as wind and solar power, rather than relying so heavily on petroleum products that emit CO2.

But as much of a no-brainer as it is to electrify our buildings, there are complications that make it much harder than most think. The first is obviously the money needed for the upgrades. Ripping out a furnace or a boiler and replacing it with electrical systems like heat pumps is costly, not just because the equipment is expensive but also because it requires a ton of labor since new lines, wires, and ducting often needs to be run. Luckily, there are lots of funding options available for building owners both in the form of grant money and lending products. 

But there is another complication that many have probably not considered: transformers. Transformers are large pieces of electrical equipment that change electricity from the high voltage needed to move it long distances through power lines to the lower voltage that we use in our daily lives. The reason many people don’t think about transformers is that they are often hidden. For smaller buildings they are usually placed on the street and housed in a metal box. They are so prominent that we have learned to not even see them anymore (unless they are covered with art as many cities have taken to doing). But if you want to increase the electrical load on a building it requires more transformers and that requires money.

Most cities require building owners to pay for additional transformers since they are the ones benefiting from the upgrades. This is fair but when it becomes an obstacle to the decarbonization efforts that we desperately need, it might require a new conversation about who should bear the costs. Not only are transformers expensive, they also need space. 

Most transformers are placed outside, but they can’t just be put anywhere. Since they contain enough high voltage electricity to kill someone and occasionally need to be serviced, they have required setbacks. This is usually only around 3 feet on each side but can be as much as 8 feet so the technician can use a “hot stick” to turn it off safely. Not only do transformers need to be placed with nothing around them, they also need a lot of space above them. Often that means that a piece of a property’s developable envelope needs to be set aside for them with nothing from the building even allowed to hang over them.

For crowded cities it isn’t feasible to set aside space for transformers so they are required to go inside the building, causing the building to give up some valuable rentable space. They can’t be put just anywhere inside the building either, the vertical setbacks usually mean the mechanical rooms they are in have to have high ceilings not typical in a normal usable area. If a building’s mechanical room is already too crowded they will need to carve out more space for additional transformers, even if that means making two floors into one. 

The extra power that buildings are going to draw will require a lot of work. The electricity needed to heat and cool a building is just part of the extra load, as more buildings put in EV charging stations it not only increases the building’s demand but also extends high demand periods into the nights, when transistors are often set to cool. We will need to make the switch to using electricity for our daily needs, no matter the costs. But the additional, overlooked cost of more, larger transformers will need to be considered. And if we want to make sure not to disincentivize decarbonization, we will need to see new technology, new regulations, and new governmental programs to help cover the costs of upgrading electrical systems, transformers and all.



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