Transformers: More than Meets the Eye

The path to net zero, based on the much disputed belief that carbon dioxide is a pollution, is more steep and impractical than most people realize. Replacing fossil fuels with […]
Published on April 15, 2023

The path to net zero, based on the much disputed belief that carbon dioxide is a pollution, is more steep and impractical than most people realize. Replacing fossil fuels with clean electricity will require much more power generation and a greatly upgraded grid to carry it. Unfortunately, this push is already making electrical transformers expensive and hard to get.

A transformer is a passive component that transfers electrical energy from one electrical circuit to other circuits. Demand for transformers began to surge six years ago, driven by new housing projects, grid modernisation, and decarbonisation efforts tied to renewable power and electric vehicles. Manufacturers have struggled to keep up with demand due to a shortage of skilled workers. Worse, the US has only one manufacturer of electrical steel and global demand for the product is high. As well, extreme weather events and supply chain issues have kept supply from keeping up with demand.

Prior to 2021, transformers were generally delivered two months after being ordered. By 2022, a survey of US public power utilities revealed that wait times had grown to a full year.

The hold up for this irreplaceable component has left one-fifth of US utility companies cancelling or delaying electrical grid projects. Home builders have waited for months for their houses to be hooked up to the grid as domestic power production runs at capacity.

Meanwhile, the stockpiles of transformers dwindled, leaving communities increasingly vulnerable should major weather events compromise the grid. About 70 percent of US electrical transmission infrastructure is already more than 25 years old, and transformers increase the risk of failure between 25 and 50 years. It’s unlikely the Canadian situation is much different.

US electricity prices rose 12.5 per cent in 2022, with more increases on the way. The price for electrical utility products, everything from transformers to wood poles, anchor bolts, and cooper wire, rose 14 per cent in 2021 and another 18 per cent in 2022.

Worse, in early March, the war in Ukraine forced Zaporozhtransformator (ZTR) to close. Europe’s largest transformer factory has sent more than 162,000 units to 88 countries since being established in 1947. Industrial solar plants in Europe and the USA use ZTR transformers, but it’s anyone’s guess when production can start up again.

Power plants have even faced problems with hackers and terrorists. In January, Mohammed Mesmarian, 34, was charged for allegedly driving through the fence that surrounded Tesla’s Mega Solar Array facility 30 miles north of Las Vegas. Then he lit his car on fire next to a transformer. He even siphoned gas from his car to put some on the wires. He told investigators he did it “for the future,” and an employee at the plant said it would be two years before replacement parts would be put in place.

Surely with age, hackers, terrorists, wars, and supply issues threatening our electrical grid, policy makers have the wisdom to hit pause on the electrify-everything project, right?

Wrong. They aren’t even slowing down. The carbon tax is rising right on schedule, while federal deficits somehow remain. Ready or not, regulations and expenditures to handicap oil and gas and force us into electric vehicles will continue to pile on.

A 2020 Princeton University study projected that US electricity transmission systems would have to expand 60 percent by 2030 and triple by the net zero year of 2050. This would accommodate more electrification of home heating and cooking, supporting more electric vehicles, and bringing more renewable power online. Transformers are a prerequisite for this transformation, including some the size of rail cars inside of power substations.

A similar effort would be required in Canada. A recent Royal Bank of Canada report estimates that getting to net zero requires lower energy consumption, turning away from fossil fuels, and augmenting clean electricity through $60 billion of spending at least until 2050. By then $2 trillion will be spent, 100,000 workers will be retrained for green jobs, and another 200,000 will come on board.

“A nation of electric vehicles, solar-powered houses and hydrogen-fueled airplanes will help enormously,” says the RBC report.

“But…the best-case scenarios for these technologies might only get Canada three-quarters of the way to net zero. We’ll need many more inventions, and new habits, to help transform industries and lifestyles.”

If the greenies’ wet dream of zero emissions sounds like no fun fantasy, you’re right. Only inconceivable technological breakthroughs or a technocratic neo-feudalism can get us to net zero so quickly. For what prize should we sacrifice our lifestyles and our resource-based economy?

This entire effort is to alleviate the mere 1.6 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions that Canada produces. China produces 27 percent but plans to build a new coal-fired power plant every three weeks until the year 2040.

Canada could export far more liquified natural gas to China as a cleaner burning alternative. However, that won’t happen until Ottawa finds some policy transformers. And these days, these transformers are the hardest of all to find.


Lee Harding is a Research Fellow at the Frontier Centre for Public Policy

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