Composite core technology could help security, reliability of the U.S. grid

Benton Wilcoxon, Composite Technology Corp.

In the wake of the disaster of September 11, 2001 and the blackout of August 14, 2003, the vulnerability of the nation’s electric power grid has become a matter of urgent national concern. Exacerbating this situation was a subsequent series of smaller, but devastating, regional power outages in places like New England (Cape Cod), Northern California (San Francisco) and various other locations around the country (and the world). These events could be likened to a series of alarms going off, not only serving notice on the industry but also alerting government, industry, business and consumer watchdogs as to just how susceptible the nation’s power distribution system is to disruption.

Start with reliability

Considering the enormity of the backlog and urgency of needed improvements, projects should be aimed at bolstering near-term reliability. But, even under the best of circumstances, developing new transmission corridors, acquiring necessary rights-of-way, and constructing miles of transmission towers is a slow and contentious endeavor that would be subject to the same scrutiny and bureaucratic entanglements that cause today’s endless delays. Real progress would be years away. The nation’s grid would still be vulnerable and the plethora of problems would persist.

Some estimate that it will take at least seven to ten years and $56 to $80 billion to bring the country’s electric distribution infrastructure up to speed. What’s needed is an approach that resolves the problems afflicting the nation’s grid for the “near term” and “long term,” improving transmission system reliability as rapidly as possible while making steady progress toward adding long-term capacity to the grid.

For the near term, deployment of “high temperature-low sag” transmission cables can go a long way to resolve today’s problems. Replacing, or re-conductoring, existing lines with composite core aluminum conductors, that transmit as much as twice the power of traditional high voltage conductors, is a highly cost-effective option for reinforcing electric paths through congested transmission corridors. It is far easier and less expensive to replace existing wires rather than developing new transmission routes and building new tower corridors. Moreover, this type of cable can be retrofitted in a very cost-effective installation that does not require new engineering of tower support systems. Replacing existing cable with composite core conductor can typically be achieved for a capital expenditure of about six times less than the current alternative of constructing a new line (exclusive of the cost of land and associated permitting), with four major benefits: higher electrical conductivity, more power flow, no tower modifications and speed.

This type of cable is also suitable for new transmission corridors. However, using it to relieve congestion and increase transmission reliability now would provide widespread and cost-effective benefits throughout the grid. For example, deferring or eliminating the construction of new transmission facilities could save or postpone at least $10 billion of new capital expenditures. This would also contribute to the reduction of congestion costs, i.e., the extra costs consumers ultimately pay because access to low cost electricity sources is constrained. In the U.S., congestion costs are estimated to be over $1 billion dollars per year.

A long-term solution

While the near-term solution offers a fairly rapid, cost-effective way to alleviate current grid congestion, increase capacity and enhance reliability, a long term solution is needed that will facilitate the faster deployment of new, more reliable lines while keeping a lid on capital expenditures.

Again, advanced, high-tech composite core aluminum conductors and state-of-the-art composite-based towers offer cost-effective options for resolving the nation’s ongoing power demands. Because of their strength, resilience, low-sag, and high-temperature capabilities, new lines can be deployed in many locations that would not be possible due to the sag and the higher electromagnetic fields (EMF) of the traditional steel cored cables.

Composite-based poles and lattice-structure towers are lighter, stronger, easier to erect, safer, more weather resilient and easier to deploy. For example, current steel towers require as many as 14 men, 2 cranes and 5 days’ time to erect. Three men can erect a composite-based tower in about a day without a crane—a substantial cost savings in man-hours, equipment, construction time, etc.

Moreover, composite towers are not as easy to bring down. They are typically engineered to withstand 200-mph winds and 6.9-Richter-Scaled earthquakes. They do not burn quickly or buckle in high heat; so they can withstand the ravages of devastating forest fires. And, if attacked with explosives, they dissipate the blast effects over a far greater area rather than in a single point. Therefore, they are less likely to collapse and pull down key transmission infrastructure.

New technologies also provide far more operational control for electric power utilities and distributors. Since 90 percent of all line failures occur at the cable splice, sensors can be integrated into composite core aluminum cable splices enabling providers of electricity to monitor changes in temperature, pressure, tension and vibration. This allows operators to implement preventative maintenance procedures and negate potential problems well before they can occur. Also, sensors can be used that provide real-time information about local weather and atmospheric gases, so that officials can better monitor and enforce homeland security issues.

Wilcoxon is chairman and CEO of Composite Technology Corporation.

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