By Rod Walton, Senior Editor
Workers on Pelco Structural LLC emergency tower.
The nation’s power transmission systems face the same quandary as many aging Hollywood stars or veteran athletes. While newcomers like smart meters and analytics are getting most of the close-ups these days, good old lines and poles are fighting for attention. They still got important work to do, but they ain’t as young nor as nimble as they used to be.
Plus, they have a ton of critics- experts and armchair electrical engineers alike-ready to remind them of that every day. An investor presentation by Valmont Industries, which has a subsidiary focused on making utility poles and towers, classified it this way: “The United States is a superpower with a third-world transmission grid” while the American Society of Civil Engineers’ 2013 report card graded the U.S. energy infrastructure with a rather dull D+. That’s no four-star review.
“We’ve got a lot of aging infrastructure out there, some that’s been in the ground 80 to 90 years,” Bob Bradish, American Electric Power’s vice president of grid operations, told POWERGRID International. “There’s going to be significant transmission investment over the next five to 10 years. The aging infrastructure alone will drive us in that direction.”
The drivers are multi-fold: increased demand, retirement of historic coal-fired generation, new natural gas generation coming online, power from wind farms and utility solar in remote locations which needs to be moved safely to demand centers. Plus there’s the ravages of age.
“There’s a lot of stuff out there literally falling down,” said RS Technologies CEO Howard Elliott, whose Calgary, Alberta-based company manufactures composite poles for projects in Latin America, Europe, Australia and Canada. Much of that dilapidation is focused in other countries, but the American transmission landscape is rife with both technical and environmental criticisms of its own.
Transmission poles and lines erected before or shortly after World War II are kind of like black-and-white melodramas: They were fine for their era but looking pretty outdated during the golden age of information technologies.
AEP, Dominion Resources and PPL Corp., among others, say they certainly plan to spend big on new transmission lines and towers (see related box). AEP’s investment on this front is projected at $5.2 billion from 2015 through 2017, according to a company presentation. Dominion placed more than $500 million worth of transmission assets into service through the second quarter, with annual capital expenditures on transmission estimated at $700 million. Southern California Edison spent close to $1 billion on replacing or repairing thousands of its poles.
The Clean Power Plan, of course, is another heavy in the T&D story. The federal government’s final rule on reducing C02 emissions from power plants is pushing utilities to adopt more renewable energy, which means power from wind and solar in remote places which then has to be transported to load centers. The CPP is seeking a 32-percent reduction in C02 from 2005 levels by 2030, but the date which concerns utility CEOs and engineers the most is the 2022 near-term requirement.
How do utilities get transmission projects planned, affirmed and constructed to move that clean, renewable power if they’ve got only seven years to do it?
“Timing is critical,” AEP’s Bradish said. “With new, greenfield transmission projects you need at least five years, depending on the siting issues, and upwards of 10 years.”
The states have a year or, at most, two to come up with their CPP implementations. The U.S. EPA has a year to decide whether it agrees with the state.
“You could be three to four years out before we have an approved plan, and now you’re already looking at 2019,” Bradish added. “We’ll be under some pressure to get whatever transmission we need to get done.”
The race is on. Sometimes pressure produces innovations, which is how AEP likes to think of its new BOLD, or Breakthrough Overhead Line Design, transmission system. BOLD, which uses unique looking towers-using single, arching arms shaped like giant mining picks-is getting its first run as part of rebuilding a 138-kV line into a double-circuit 345-kV system in the Fort Wayne, Indiana region. The first of the Fort Wayne line is energized, with the other half coming on power next year.
Another look at BOLD Tower
The BOLD system is the brainchild of engineers inspired by Steve Jobs and the sleek designs of Apple products. The towers married form and functionality, as Bradish noted, with shorter and narrower support structures which reduce right-of-ways and yet also act like more like high-voltage lines while still operating at the native voltage.
“The key is the compact design,” AEP spokeswoman Melissa McHenry said. “It provides the ability to use a single, arching arm to support the conductors giving the design a more elegant shape.”
Beyond BOLD, other utilities are taking on ambitious transmission systems to try making their part of the grid more reliability and efficient. Arizona Public Service, for instance, earlier this year completed the 500-kV HANG2 line connecting Phoenix to Yuma. The 110-mile line was the largest APS transmission construction project in more than 25 years.
The $1.4 billion, 150-mile Susquehanna-Roseland power line was fully energized earlier this year. The 500-kV system connects PPL Electric Utilities’ Susquehanna nuclear plant in Pennsylvania to Public Service Enterprise Group’s switching station in Essex County, New Jersey. Last year, PPL also began plans for a $6 billion transmission project across Pennsylvania to New York, New Jersey and Maryland.
“I think companies are looking at their business models and deciding where they want to put their capital,” Bradish said. “It’s going to be a more robust grid, a more tightly integrated grid.”
Advanced metering rollouts, fast-growing rooftop solar and a revival in high-voltage direct current lines gained plenty of headlines. Utilities and their home jurisdictions are racing to figure out how they deal with various challenges, such as regulations and engineering threats such as reverse flow induced by distributed energy sources or intermittent loads from renewables.
But the customer doesn’t really care about any of that. They just want the happy ending.
“People are unwilling for their Internet to be down,” RS Technologies CEO Elliott pointed out. Customers also are growing more concerned about ecological impacts and aesthetics, similar to Norwegians who “don’t like monster towers,” he added. Businesses, such as utilities on one end and pole manufacturers on the other, are picking up the gauntlet.
“It is starting to happen,” Elliott said, responding to a question about AEP’s BOLD line and other support structure changes. “They’re trying to streamline…There’s a lot of things happening with cross-arm development.”
The vision for North American electricity transmission is less grandiose than it was when the age of the Internet, cell phones and plug-in vehicles first came into view. Few people are talking about building out an “electricity superhighway” similar to President Eisenhower’s interstate highway project of the 1950s, but now it’s simply a matter of connecting transmission to new generation sources and dealing with what’s in danger of falling down.
The only problem sounds like a famous movie refrain: Show me the money!
“There’s some huge new projects…and it all sounds wonderful,” Elliott said. “It’s one thing for people to say we need to do all of this stuff. Where is the money coming from?”
In giving the U.S. energy infrastructure its D+ report two years ago, the American Society of Civil Engineer’s report card noted that some 17,000 miles (which includes both electrical transmission and oil and gas pipelines) were planned over five years, but permitting and siting issues threaten their completion.
The investment gap for transmission-between what’s being done and what the ASCE believes needs to be done-will be about $37 billion by 2020, according to the 2013 infrastructure report card. The distribution side’s investment gap is considered even higher at more than $50 billion.
The ASCE pointed out several success stories in transmission links such as the 500-kV Trans-Alleghany line extending from Pennsylvania into West Virginia and northern Virginia four years ago. Much more needs to be done soon, ASCE warned.
“Today, we have an aging and complex patchwork system of power generating plants, power lines, and substations that must operate cohesively to power our homes and businesses,” the ASCE report card read two years ago. “There are thousands of power generating plants and systems spread across the United States and almost 400,000 miles of electric transmission lines. With the addition of new gas-fired and renewable generation, the need to add new transmission lines has become even greater.”
Since then, utilities say they are stepping up to answer the call for new and rebuilt transmission, using the latest in pole and line technologies. Whether it’s enough to deal with the challenges ahead is a drama worthy of the best that Hollywood or the Super Bowl could offer.
The industry just needs its tried and true veteran, good old T&D, to carry the load when it’s showtime.