As the world turns deliberately and inevitably towards a renewable energy future, innovators from around the world have worked tirelessly to improve upon renewable energy generation technology to the point where it now competes dollar for dollar with fossil generation. However, while those innovators have focused on more efficient wind turbines, solar panels and storage technology, utilities are struggling to keep pace. We must work to modernize and optimize our aging grid for utility scale renewable energy assets if we are to optimize grid performance, alleviate transmission congestion and realize the full potential of what is an exciting global energy transition.
The modern power grid as we know it was conceived and created in the United States over 100 years ago with Thomas Edison’s famed Electric Illuminating Company in 1880. And while an easy joke might be made that some of the power lines that transmit power on the contemporary grid are about the same age as Edison’s first “utility,” a survey of grids around the world will show that the United States today lags behind many other countries when it comes to deploying advanced transmission technologies to support the health, reliability, longevity and capability of the existing transmission infrastructure.
The ARRA Smart Grid Investment Grant of 2009 helped spur investment in the first generation of smart grid technologies such as smart meters, but lacked any operational focus on the transmission system. Still today, this is a vital oversight because that transmission grid moves electricity over long distances is built on transmission equipment that averages 40 years of age or more, and much of which is meeting or has passed its useful and reliability based end of life. Upgrading the transmission grid has proven difficult, and in some cases impossible in large part because of a multi-layered regulatory regime.
The clean energy economy isn’t about to arrive; it’s already here, and it’s the only certain way to fight climate change and global warming as well as create millions of new, well-paying jobs. That means that many more utility-scale renewable assets; offshore wind, terrestrial wind, utility-scale solar, community solar, large hydro, and expansive energy storage must be financed, built, and placed into operation on an aggressive schedule with interconnection queues already backed up for years.
To accommodate and integrate these generation technologies as practical and reliable resources, we must adopt a new approach to transmission, maintaining the existing infrastructure as we grow the reliability, capacity, and resilience of the bulk power grid. If even a modest fraction of these new projects is built without improving the existing grid and increasing its capacity, these efforts risk being paralyzed, built – but not operational; and their costs stranded and recoverable only on the backs of ratepayers.
Case in point: recent rolling blackouts in California. These relatively contained and relatively brief episodes of load shedding were not catastrophic, but nonetheless caused massive disruption in affected areas during a crushing heatwave and shined a spotlight on the Achilles heel of resource adequacy and if transmission capacity isn’t there to support regional imports, it’s the same as having the highway leading to a public safety crisis shut down with first responders blocked at the other end.
The lack of capacity on the existing grid is already hindering progress. Currently there are proposed projects languishing in interconnection queues in practically every state, and other projects already online are hampered, face low or even negative pricing, or are completely curtailed by transmission congestion. Worse further, this is often at times when wind speeds are at their highest, meaning the wind farms ramping up aren’t allowed to supply the grid with their green electrons due to the lack of transmission capacity. The same congestion often prevents the dispatch of generation resources in merit order; that is, in a way that provides every megawatt to serve load at the least cost. This congestion creates constraints in moving electricity from one region to another, and while building new transmission lines is a needed part of the solution, it doesn’t address the problem immediately. Permitting and citing for new lines can take multiple years, but technology does exist that can make an impact right now.
According to The Brattle Group, “The increasing electrification of society, and the looming and dangerous impacts of climate change and new, large amounts of wind and solar power will increase the variability of electric loads and potentially overwhelm the grid. While new investment in transmission is inevitable, it’s vital that the life of the existing infrastructure be lengthened and its capacity be increased, safely, as much as possible.”
Is there a solution? Yes, in fact, there are a number of solutions that are not only available but have proven effective in modest, large, and very large applications on segments of the bulk power transmission system. They can help ensure that the existing grid can maintain and even grow capacity and reliability, while the vision for a new, smart grid takes shape and new, clean and renewable generation actually comes online. This presents an opportunity for innovators and investors alike who are committed to tackling this problem.
I recently joined the advisory board of LineVision, a Boston-based utility-focused technology company that provides an innovative Dynamic Line Rating solutions which can unlock upwards of 40% of capacity on the grid. I joined the company because we must work to ensure the world meets lofty climate goals by 2030 and we’re committed to getting more renewable assets on line as fast as we possibly can.
A good example of how we can take steps to innovate our existing grid is the situation in the Southwest Power Pool (SPP), which oversees the bulk electric grid and wholesale power market in the central United States on behalf of a diverse group of utilities and transmission companies in 14 states. SPP needed more capacity on a transmission line to alleviate grid congestion which was causing out-of-merit generation dispatch, which increases the cost of electricity. SPP identified a specific 161-kV line that was contributing to the congestion and brought in LineVision to install a non-contact monitoring system. By identifying the line’s existing performance and actual limits, the system identified additional carrying capacity that did not require any physical upgrades to the line. SPP was able to determine concisely that that line could safely move additional power and eliminate congestion problems 99.9% of operating time.
While perhaps a bit behind their European counterparts, US policymakers are now looking at DLR and other technologies as tools to modernize aging grid infrastructure without spending tens of billions of dollars to do it. Indeed, congestion on the wires has been a widely-recognized issue. A recent study estimated that the cost of congestion was close to $8 billion/yr; a cost that is ultimately absorbed by electricity consumers.
Conversely, a 2017 study by PJM Interconnection simulated the effect of DLR technology on a highly-congested 18-mile long 500kV line. The study showed net congestion savings of more than $4.2 million in just one year versus a physical upgrade of the line, which would have cost tens of millions.
In August, thirteen U.S. Senators issued a letter to Neal Chatterjee, who was at the time chairman of the US Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), urging FERC to promote the utilization of grid enhancing technologies such as DLR for the same reasons Europe is now actively integrating the technology.
From the letter:
“According (to the US) DOE, the U.S. currently lags behind a number of countries in the deployment of advanced transmission technologies in large part because of differences in regulatory environments. Grid-enhancing technologies often cost a fraction of a transmission expansion but are not being deployed because our current policies do not provide the same incentive for these new technologies as they do for more conventional options.”
Notably, proponents of the new technology are realistic when it comes to wringing more life out of the existing transmission asset and building new transmission lines at the same time. It’s not one or the other, it’s all of the above and we should start by utilizing technology to optimize the grid that we already have.
The new energy economy must and will move forward; in fact, 16 U.S. states and territories have adopted 100% clean-renewable energy mandates or goals by fixed dates. These goals can only be made possible through the enablement of a strengthened, reliable, and resilient electric transmission grid that embraces technologies already available to purposely designed to aid in this mission.
About the Author
Nora Read Brownell serves on the advisory board for LineVision, a Boston-based provider of overhead power line monitoring and dynamic line rating technologies and is the co-founder is the co-founder of ESPY Energy Solutions, LLC, a consultancy serving the energy industry. Prior to this, she served on the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, was Chair of the Board at Pacific Gas and Electric, and served as a member of the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission. As a leading advocate of responsive and effective independent board governance at RTOs and corporations, Ms. Brownell is a strong proponent of policies that promote investment in national energy infrastructure development and foster competitive markets to serve the public interest.