Down to the Wire(s): The Next Generation Electricity Grid Needs Generation Technology
Use of advanced drivers can reduce costs and land impacts, but existing policies do not support change
Switching to carbon-free electricity will require a massive expansion of transmission capacity – by some estimates, two to three times the existing system. Despite the need to quickly build new high-capacity interstate transmission lines to connect renewable resources to customers, the lines are stalled due to decentralized siting and licensing processes. However, there are ways to increase capacity beyond concentrating on new transmission lines. In fact, if upgraded to the latest technology, existing lines could move more power without going through cumbersome licensing processes.
Reconductoring, or replacing existing wires with new “advanced” conductors, is a promising but underused approach. Compared to traditional conductors (electric wires), Advanced conductors have a stronger core material and a more conductive aluminum configuration that allows the lines to carry significantly more current without increasing line weight or diameter. Using existing towers but swapping wires allows the system to carry twice as much power. Rehabilitation projects also utilize or extend an existing right-of-way, facing streamlined regulatory pathways that allow them to avoid the years of delay faced by many new transmission line projects. Using existing rights-of-way minimizes landowner objections and concerns about environmental impacts and maximizes use of existing infrastructure and previous investments.
On March 15, Grid Strategies LLC, an energy consulting firm, released a report on advanced conductors for the American Council on Renewable Energy (ACORE). The report provides a technical analysis of the potential of advanced drivers and a series of policy recommendations. He found that renewing and rebuilding existing transmission routes using advanced conductors could save consumers at least $140 billion over the next decade. It would also help accelerate decarbonization efforts by increasing the amount of renewable energy that the existing grid can deliver to customers.
Regulatory and institutional processes are put in place to assume that the existing technology is good enough and that the world will continue to be much the same. But new grid technology is much more efficient, the climate is warming rapidly, and renewables are fast becoming the most affordable source of energy, if only we had a modern grid to supply it. Three of the policy recommendations presented by the report address these challenges head-on:
- “Transmission planners and owners should incorporate advanced conductor assessments into all transmission expansion and interconnection plans and studies.”
- Transport planners and owners should work with regulators “to shift their assessments from ‘least cost’ to ‘maximum net benefits’ when considering technology options for long-term plans”, particularly for technologies which represent a fraction of the project costs and have additional benefits.
- The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission should “require transportation planners to adopt a future-based planning process to optimize net worth by considering likely future scenarios and where renewable energy generation resources additional ones will probably be connected to the network”.
These recommendations show how a change in policy could lead us to quickly integrate the latest technologies, which would ultimately result in lower prices, fewer impacts on landowners and cleaner energy supply.
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