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Allowing More Juice to Flow Through Power Lines Could Hasten Clean Energy Grid-enhancing technologies can help existing lines carry more electricity.

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Above image credit: States are struggling to reach their clean energy goals because of a backlog in transmission capacity that’s keeping wind and solar projects off the grid. Some are pursuing technologies that could allow existing power lines to carry up to 40% more electricity. (Charles Rex Arbogast | The Associated Press)
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6 minute read

If the thousands of proposed solar, wind and battery projects got built, they would more than double the amount of electricity that is currently produced nationwide and get the U.S. much closer to its clean energy targets.

But there’s one big problem: America’s power lines can’t carry that much juice.

The country’s limited transmission infrastructure is causing a huge backlog: Wait times for regulators to approve grid connections now last about five years on average, a figure that stood at less than two years in 2008.

“We have a ton of resources sitting in [backlogs] that can’t get connected to the system,” said Byron Corum, technical adviser to Commissioner Allison Clements, who serves on the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. “One of the big reasons is we’re running out of space on the transmission grid.”

Building new transmission lines to swoop across the nation’s landscape can cost billions of dollars and require decades of permitting and construction. As that work continues, some policymakers are pushing an interim solution: squeezing more capacity out of existing power lines.

Grid-enhancing technologies, or GETs, are low-cost, quick-to-deploy devices that can help existing infrastructure carry up to 40% more electricity. Backers say these upgrades could bring a surge of clean energy projects online, even as future transmission lines remain under construction.

“They are very cheap in terms of how much money they save for the grid when compared to creating new lines, which can be billions of dollars.”

– Ava Gallo, climate and energy program manager with the National Caucus of Environmental Legislators

Congestion on the grid cost consumers more than $20 billion in 2022, one analysis found, a massive spike from just a few years before. Some lawmakers think technology upgrades could significantly lower utility bills in addition to their climate benefits.

“They are very cheap in terms of how much money they save for the grid when compared to creating new lines, which can be billions of dollars,” said Ava Gallo, climate and energy program manager with the National Caucus of Environmental Legislators.

But many utilities have been slow to deploy GETs. In most states, utilities can charge higher rates based on investments they’ve made to improve infrastructure. That means expensive projects — such as building new power lines — deliver a much higher profit return than low-cost upgrades.

“Utilities are definitely biased toward building big, expensive projects where they get a solid return and make a bunch of money,” said Utah state Sen. Nate Blouin, a Democrat. “That’s not what GETs is.”

In eight states, legislators have put forward bills that would force utilities to evaluate grid-enhancing technologies in the planning documents they are required to submit to state regulators. Backers believe those reports will demonstrate that GETs can meet capacity needs at the lowest cost to ratepayers, which would force utilities to adopt them under their regulatory mandates.

Some proponents believe further changes to utilities’ incentive structure may be needed to ensure widespread use.

While GETs-related bills have not drawn specific pushback along partisan lines or from industry groups, backers acknowledge that challenges remain.

Technology Solutions

Grid-enhancing technologies come in several forms. One technology uses real-time temperature and wind measurements to determine how much power can pass through lines without overheating, enabling more electricity to flow when it’s safe. Such “dynamic line ratings” would replace static systems that limit electricity flow based on conservative estimates of potential high temperatures.

New system controls can redirect power from congested lines to corridors that are less crowded. And software technology can evenly distribute electricity over a transmission network, preventing overloads and increasing capacity.

Taken together, these tools can dramatically increase the carrying capacity of existing power lines under certain conditions. They also can make the grid more resilient and less vulnerable to overloads and outages.

“It allows [renewable electricity] to get to the market more efficiently, and that helps with more affordability,” said Sandra Jenkins, director of grid controls with the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Electricity.

The department has spent more than $8 million on grid-enhancing research and demonstration projects across four regions.

Jenkins said one ongoing challenge is that grid operators will need to adopt a standardized system of collecting data, since the analytics-heavy technology could create accessibility headaches without a single set of guidelines.

Several state lawmakers said they were encouraged by a report published earlier this year by the climate-focused nonprofit RMI. Looking at a grid sector covering parts of the eastern United States, the authors found that GETs could allow an additional 6.6 gigawatts of clean energy to come online by 2027. That added capacity could power about 5 million homes while yielding $1 billion each year in production cost savings, with an installation cost of $100 million.

“GETs are incredibly fast and cost-effective,” said Katie Siegner, a manager focused on grid policy within RMI’s Carbon-Free Electricity practice. “They can be deployed in months, compared to the decades it might take to site a new transmission line.”

Colorado Leads the Way

Last year, Colorado became the first state to enact a law advancing grid-enhancing technologies. The measure, sponsored by Democratic state Sen. Chris Hansen, requires utilities to study the potential of GETs before breaking ground on a new transmission line. Forcing utilities to consider those upgrades, Hansen said, should allow the state’s fast-growing renewable energy sector to bring more power online.

“We’ve got to play catch-up,” he said. “We’ve got to make the investments now to get the system where it needs to be in the next decade.”

In Virginia, state lawmakers passed a bill late last month requiring utilities to study grid-enhancing technologies in their planning documents. The measure is awaiting the signature of Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin.

“We’re making them take a close look and see if it makes sense,” said state Del. Phil Hernandez, the bill’s Democratic sponsor. “Knowing the promise they hold, we hope we’ll be able to nudge them in that direction.”

Hernandez said the bill did not face pushback from the state’s utilities. While some lawmakers voted against the bill, they did not explain their objections during a Senate hearing on the proposal. Republican state Sen. Mark Obenshain, who also serves on the General Assembly’s Commission on Electric Utility Regulation, did not respond to an inquiry about voting against the bill in committee or on its final passage.

Minnesota lawmakers are considering a similar bill this session. The measure, sponsored by Democratic state Rep. Larry Kraft, would direct utilities to evaluate congestion on their networks by 2025 and determine how GETs could be used to address it. Like many of the states pursuing GETs legislation, Minnesota has a law requiring a shift to clean electricity in the coming years. Coupled with a growing demand for electric cars and heating systems, legislators expect the state’s transmission needs to increase.

“This makes so much sense,” Kraft said. “We are expecting a lot more renewables on the grid, and GETs could be really helpful in certain cases.”

Kraft said the measure will likely be included in an omnibus bill at the end of the legislative session.

“This makes so much sense. We are expecting a lot more renewables on the grid, and GETs could be really helpful in certain cases.”

– Minnesota state Rep. Larry Kraft

In a letter to Minnesota lawmakers, the regional utility Xcel Energy expressed its support for GETs and credited the bill with “jump-starting” a conversation. However, the utility noted that its infrastructure in Minnesota connects to a multistate grid. The full benefits of GETs, Xcel wrote, depend on a collaborative multistate process rather than a utility-by-utility plan. The letter noted other examples in which the larger regional transmission organization that Xcel is part of would need to be considered in plans to use such upgrades.

In Utah, Blouin’s bill passed the Senate without objection, but did not get a vote on the House floor before the end of the legislative session. An earlier version of the measure would have allowed utilities to retain a portion of the savings generated by the deployment of GETs. Blouin and some advocates said that might incentivize utilities to pursue such upgrades, even as the new transmission lines that deliver larger profits remain under development.

The National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners did not respond to an interview request. Neither Dominion Energy, which supplies electricity in Virginia and other states, nor the Edison Electric Institute, an association the represents electric companies, responded to interview requests by publication time.

Lawmakers in other states — including California, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York and South Carolina — have proposed similar bills, mostly focused on requiring their utilities to study GETs and provide reports on how they could benefit their systems.

Though many of the measures have drawn bipartisan support, all but South Carolina’s are sponsored by Democrats.

South Carolina Republican state Sen. Tom Davis, who drafted that bill, did not respond to an interview request.

Alex Brown covers environmental issues for Stateline, where this story first appeared. Stateline is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity.

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