Greening power grids doesn’t just entail massive growth in wind, solar and other renewable energy sources. It also requires a massive expansion of transmission grid capacity to carry power to where it’s needed — and as report after report attests, the U.S. and Europe are falling behind in the race to build that capacity.
But while governments and grid operators struggle to overcome the economic and regulatory barriers to building new transmission, “grid-enhancing technologies” could offer some relief by discovering and utilizing the spare capacity on the power lines we’ve already built.
That’s the role the company LineVision sees its dynamic line rating technology playing in the energy transition. On Wednesday, the Boston-based startup landed $12.5 million from investors, including the venture arm of one apparently satisfied customer: National Grid, an energy giant in the U.S. and the U.K.
National Grid Partners joined lead investor UP Partners, Zoma Capital and previous investor Clean Energy Ventures in the round, which adds to the $2 million LineVision raised after its spinout from parent company Genscape in 2018.
That’s a “big step up” for the 30-employee startup, according to CEO Hudson Gilmer, and it will help LineVision to expand its engineering team and data analytics capabilities and to seek new markets beyond its current European and U.S. stomping grounds.
How dynamic line rating expands grid capacity
Dynamic line rating (DLR) technologies measure the real-time carrying capacity of high-voltage lines to replace the static measurements and conservative rules of thumb used to manage the vast majority of grids today. After a decade or so of testing, DLR technologies have shown they can accurately identify spare capacity that grid operators and utilities can reliably put to use in real-world operations, according to a 2019 Energy Department report.
Putting this visibility to use at scale could help reduce the costs of grid congestion, estimated at $8.3 billion on the U.S. transmission grid in 2018. It could also help unblock an estimated 20 gigawatts of renewable projects that have been stalled due to rising costs to upgrade the grid to interconnect them, according to studies from Americans for a Clean Energy Grid.
LineVision is already generating revenue from its deployments, Gilmer noted. Those include projects with U.S. utilities Xcel Energy, American Electric Power, the Tennessee Valley Authority and National Grid in Massachusetts and New York state, plus the four-utility Farcross consortium in Europe.
These projects have been testing LineVision’s ability to capture electrical and physical data on power lines far overhead. DLR systems from companies Ampacimon and Lindsey Systems attach to the power lines themselves. LineVision uses lidar and electromagnetic sensors mounted at the base of the pylons that hold power lines aloft, which can reduce deployment cost and complexity, Gilmer said.
LineVision’s technology has reliably identified excess transmission capacity that’s 15 to 40 percent greater than static ratings on typical circuits, he said. Beyond that, “we have this treasure trove of information we’re capturing off the sensors. We can help our customers not just unlock more capacity on the existing line, but also get better about predicting risk factors.”
Lidar measurements can capture the sway and sag of power lines under different weather conditions, and electromagnetic readings can be analyzed to assess their tensile strength. This could help utilities prioritize transmission grid repair and replacement plans, or in the worst case, prevent failures that can lead to power outages and wildfires, he noted.
For example, National Grid has been testing DLR technology both as a tool to identify additional capacity on its increasingly wind- and solar-rich transmission system, and as a way to augment expensive and infrequent aerial and ground-based inspections of its network, Terron Hill, the utility’s director of asset development, told me last year.
At the same time, the same high winds that can threaten power lines also cool them, thereby increasing their carrying capacity. That correlates closely with increased wind farm output — a fact that could help grid operators in wind-power-rich regions reduce curtailment due to capacity constraints that aren’t actually operative.
DLR systems can be combined with other grid-enhancing technologies, such as advanced power flow controls and "topology optimization" systems that can find and direct power flows to less-congested parts of the transmission network. This combined approach could lead to major increases in renewable power capacity on the transmission network of Midwest grid operator Southwest Power Pool, according to a February study by The Brattle Group.
National Grid is one of many U.S. utilities pledging to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. “We see investment in grid-enhancing technologies like LineVision as strategically important to our efforts to modernize the grid and integrate more renewables,” Rudy Wynter, president of National Grid New York, said in a prepared statement.
From pilot projects to unlocking grid capacity at scale
After years of testing, grid operators are starting to make plans to use DLR technologies in a more standard way. Mid-Atlantic grid operator PJM has moved from DLR pilot projects to working on processes to integrate their use into day-to-day operations and transmission planning, said Jon Marmillo, LineVision's co-founder and VP of product management.
There are some institutional barriers to putting DLR to broader use on U.S. power grids, however. Beyond the inherent conservativism of grid operators managing critical transmission networks, there are economic factors involved. Utilities earn rates of return on the capital cost of building new transmission, but not on the cost of technologies that increase their operational efficiency.
For years, technology vendor trade groups including the Watt Coalition and grid expansion advocates such as Americans for a Clean Energy Grid and the Wires Group have been highlighting this disconnect between grid needs and investments.
Last year, a group of U.S. senators including Bernie Sanders, Dianne Feinstein, Martin Heinrich and Sheldon Whitehouse asked the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to take more aggressive action to encourage the deployment of technology to increase grid efficiencies. A policy designed to do was part of the 2005 Energy Policy Act.
It’s likely that FERC will take up this challenge under the leadership of Richard Glick, named as the agency’s chairman by the Biden administration in January. Glick has repeatedly cited transmission improvements and expansion as a key goal.
The Biden administration’s recently unveiled $2.3 trillion infrastructure and jobs plan identifies the transmission grid as a target of up to $100 billion of investment. The plan includes a targeted tax credit to spur the build-out of 20 gigawatts of power lines, as well as the creation of a Grid Deployment Authority at the Department of Energy to guide use of railroad and highway rights-of-way and find “creative financing tools” for more development.
That’s all necessary to reach Biden’s ambitious goal of decarbonizing the U.S. electricity system by 2035, LineVision's Gilmer said. But so is using the existing grid more efficiently, he contends.
"We feel like there’s no way we achieve the net-zero carbon grid by 2035 unless we can unlock flexibility and capacity on existing wires," he said. “This funding really gives us the scale to match the scale of the problem we’re going after.”
(Article image courtesy of LineVision)
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