The Growing Issue About Transformers
Almost every day now, a new energy transition project or a plan to rapidly grow an electricity grid is announced. Between net-zero electrification goals and landmark policy support like the Inflation Reduction Act, there’s an incredible momentum behind the electricity sector.
But of all the challenges that lie ahead of net-zero ambitions, one has remained particularly persistent: the world is facing a transformer shortage that even Shia LaBeouf can’t help with.
Background: Transformers are electrical system assets that change the voltage of electricity moving across the grid.
In a typical grid, transformers range in size from +600,000-pound large power transformers (LPTs) that “step up” voltage for efficient, long-haul electricity transmission, to smaller transformers that “step down” voltage again so your toaster doesn’t blow up when you plug it in.
- The garbage-can-looking thing attached to that utility pole? Transformer. The green box on your neighbour’s lawn? Transformer. Optimus Prime? Also, Transformer.
Excluding energy losses through transmission and distribution, over 90 percent of electricity used in the United States passes through a transformer prior to being consumed by its end user.
Basic structure of the electricity grid
The issue: We need more transformers—the electricity kind, not the sentient robo-Camero kind.
What started as a negative side effect of the COVID-19 pandemic—like having to remind people that they’re on mute during a Zoom call—bottlenecks in the transformer supply chain have persisted. This led to a shocking increase in material costs and lead times, putting grid expansion, housing and infrastructure development, and other critical projects at risk.
- According to the Wall Street Journal, American utilities are being quoted lead times of more than 2 to 3 years to receive large power transformers. Wait times for the smaller distribution transformers, units that would normally take weeks to receive, hover around 18 months.
Costs are rapidly increasing too
Some buyers are paying4 to 5 times more for transformers than they did just a few years ago. With costs this high, some utilities operating in price-regulated markets expressed concerns that they may not receive approval to recover the full costs of purchasing spare transformers to support grid reliability.
While this is bad news for developers and utilities, sky-rocketing demand has been a boon for maintainers and manufacturers of transformers and their component parts, leading to higher margins and (hopefully) supporting a business case to expand capacity.
Industry structure of critical segments for large power transformers
Grid expansion versus grid reliability
At the same time, the US power grid is no spring chicken. The average age of a large power transformer is over 40 years old, with more than 75 percent of transformers above their typical operating life of 25 years, increasing the risk of failures.
Extra load: If that wasn’t enough, these aging transformers will be required to put in overtime in their golden years. US federal researchers estimate that charging cars and powering heating and cooking appliances with electricity could increase overall demand on the grid nearly 40 percent by 2050.
Extreme weather events aren’t helping either, often damaging or destroying electricity grid infrastructure, including the transformers that support them. With major weather events becoming more intense and more frequent, transformer inventories continue to fall, with order backlogs making it more challenging for utilities and grid operators to get power back to those who need it.
Zoom out: Transformer shortages sit at the nexus of a key infrastructure debate about which is more important: supporting grid expansion or maintaining current grid reliability and affordability? In other words, is it more important to focus on climate change mitigation or to build for adaptation?
At least we know where Megan Fox sits in her support for transformers.
+Bonus infographic: An introduction to AC/DC