A New Model for Investing in Transmission
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- Jan 27, 2020 5:28 pm GMT
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Utilities are facing pressures to meet growing renewable energy demand, largely driven by state clean energy mandates – while also facing the usual pressures to keep energy costs low for consumers. A recent study by the WIRES trade group and the ScottMadden Inc. consulting firm found that insufficient transmission capacity is the primary challenge for utilities in the race to renewables. Specifically, the report finds a huge mismatch in where renewable supply is versus where it’s going to be needed to meet the mandates. Transmission can close this gap but our grid is already experiencing transmission bottlenecks, which cost ratepayers over $5 billion in 2018. It is clear that the only way to reach RPS targets is with a major increase in transmission capacity. Historically, there has been only one method for building transmission – through complex engineering and line construction and upgrades, which can take up to 10 years. 2020 will be different. This year, a new model for building transmission is emerging that leverages sensors and analytics to unlock additional capacity on existing lines.
Sensors vs. Steel
One of the most promising new technologies for grid modernization is dynamic line ratings, which safely increases the capacity of existing transmission lines using advanced sensors and analytics. By moving from static line ratings, based on worst-case weather assumptions, to dynamic ratings based on real-time observed conditions, utilities can safely increase capacity on existing lines by an average 15 to 40 percent. This solution unlocks grid capacity for less than 5 percent of the unit cost of building new transmission lines and can be implemented in months, not years.
Safeguarding the Grid
The same sensor technology that enables increased transmission capacity also provides a second benefit of improving the safety and reliability of the aging grid. As recent events in California and Australia have shown, extreme weather events are exposing the risks and liabilities of unmonitored lines. For example, authorities indicated that PG&E power lines sparked the 2018 Camp Fire, which resulted in $16.5 billion in losses.
By continuously monitoring lines and applying digital twin algorithms that create a digital profile of the expected position of the conductor, utilities can gain confidence that their lines are within safe operating limits and receive real-time alerts if any anomalies are detected that indicate risk to the asset’s health or public safety. Advanced sensors and analytics can also provide condition-based asset health monitoring – calculating the remaining operating life of aging conductors, without the need for disruptive destructive testing. Asset health monitoring helps grid operators make informed maintenance and renewal decisions to improve overall grid reliability and prioritize limited budget dollars.
2020 will be the year to confront the growing gap between renewable targets and transmission capacity. The good news is that in addition to the traditional solution of building or upgrading lines, there is now a rapidly deployable, proven and cost-effective alternative. Transmission line monitoring platforms can not only help utilities make the most of existing transmission by unlocking additional capacity on the grid, they also provide layers of assurance from the risks of extreme weather and aging infrastructure.