Our 20th Century Grid Won’t Support a 21st Century Clean-Energy Economy

Copyright: K.Reichert

Without most people knowing it, they’re getting their electricity from a complex mesh of power plants, electric substations, long-distance high-voltage transmission lines, and local distribution systems that bring power to our homes, businesses, and factories. This is what we call “The Grid,” the world’s largest machine.

In the United States, there are three large grids tied together: the Eastern Interconnection, the Western Interconnection, and the Texas Grid, called ERCOT. Most of the time they work flawlessly, so we go about our business reassured that our lights, heat or AC, electronic devices, and more will be there. When it fails for any reason, whether it’s a thunderstorm knocking tree limbs down on power lines, or even an overload on a ferociously hot or bitterly cold day, we certainly take notice — because life as we know it depends on a reliable electric grid.

Fortunately, those failures don’t happen often, and when they do, our local utilities work hard to restore power. Restoration of power typically comes quickly, but sometimes it can take days or even weeks — but that’s a temporary problem. What’s more disconcerting is the long-term health of the grid.

To start, much of the high-voltage transmission system, those tall, steel, or concrete towers holding lines called conductors, were built 40, 50, or even 60 years ago. Some of the original conductors from 100 years ago are still hanging on those towers! While our demand for electricity has grown, very few new transmission lines have been built. There are many reasons: cost, the difficulty in getting permits and easements, and perhaps most of all, vocal public opposition. As a result, we simply don’t have the capacity needed to transport more electricity to where it’s needed.

That creates three big problems:

  • Without additional transmission capacity, we cannot meet the demands of an electrified world. To meet the demands of decarbonization and electrification, we’re building more clean-energy generation — solar fields and wind farms, and offshore wind. Many could be under construction in just the next few years. If even a fraction of them come online, they will further stress an already aging and overtaxed grid.
  • The limits on power lines’ ability to carry more electricity can create what are called constraints, which then require re-routing to other lines, which typically increases the cost of electricity to ratepayers.
  • The power lines themselves can fail from wear and tear, overheating, fraying, or drooping. There are some solutions available immediately, though.
A LineVision V3 sensor providing Dynamic Line Ratings to Duquesne Light Co. in Pennsylvania

Utilities and grid operators are working to build new transmission, and that is definitely part of the solution, but there is also a way to get more capacity out of our existing lines for a fraction of the cost. LineVision is doing that across the world right now, in ways that support the health and longevity of power lines, monitor their condition, and increase their capacity to deliver electricity through dynamic line ratings. Dynamic line ratings consider the real-time and forecasted condition of transmission lines. When lines are cooler, more power can move on them. Dynamic line ratings give operators that information so they can move more power. The lights stay on, more renewable energy comes on the grid, and your electric bill goes down because the lines are no longer congested, which costs you money.

The US electric grid hasn’t fundamentally changed in 150 years, but there are major changes happening now. It is exciting, and the need is there. LineVision is enabling that change with solutions like dynamic line ratings and chances are your utility will be benefiting soon.

Written by Alex Houghtaling, VP of Sales at LineVision

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