New projects aim to break US barriers to digitizing the grid

U.S. utilities are just starting to deploy grid-boosting tech like Smart Wires’ SmartValve systems. A carbon-free grid will need a lot more of it to succeed.
By Jeff St. John

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Smart Wires' SmartValve advanced power flow control devices at a substation of U.K. transmission grid operator National Grid
Smart Wires has installed its SmartValve advanced power flow control devices at three substations of the U.K. transmission-grid operator National Grid. (Smart Wires)

Smart Wires has spent more than a decade putting its grid-boosting technology to the test in Australia, South America, and Europe. Now, the Durham, North Carolina–based company is finally getting a crack at projects in the U.S., backed by federal funds and policies supporting technologies that could unlock gigawatts of capacity on the country’s existing power grids.

In October, Smart Wires was selected for two projects that will receive a combined $60 million in U.S. Department of Energy funding. They will be the first large-scale U.S. deployments of Smart Wires’ SmartValve power-flow-control devices, which can digitally increase resistance on individual power lines in a transmission network to redirect power onto underutilized lines.

These advanced power-flow-control (APFC) systems are among a set of so-called grid-enhancing technologies — GETs for short — that could play an important role in mitigating grid bottlenecks. These logjams block wind and solar farms from being connected to the grid, causing billions of dollars in congestion costs and making the grid less reliable during summer heat waves and winter storms.

But U.S. transmission utilities, which earn money by building new infrastructure rather than making their existing transmission networks run more efficiently, have lagged other countries in deploying these technologies. That lag has spurred the Biden administration and some states to institute a set of policies to speed GETs deployments to help meet clean-energy and grid-reliability goals.

At an event last month to introduce a new grid-modernization collaboration between the White House and 21 states, Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm called GETs the lowest-hanging fruit for being able to get additional capacity on the grid — and for the least amount of money.”

Ted Bloch-Rubin, Smart Wires’ director of business development for the Americas, was at last month’s White House event. Secretary Granholm said what we’ve been trying to say for a long time,” he told Canary Media in an interview last month. This is low-hanging fruit. Let’s get on it.”

A U.S. test case for advanced power-flow controls

Smart Wires’ U.S. efforts are among 58 projects across 44 states targeted for a total of $3.5 billion in DOE grid-modernization grants from a program created by the 2021 Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.

One of the company’s two projects is with transmission utility Vermont Electric Power Co. (VELCO) and the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), and targets a key interconnection for moving wind and hydro power between New York and New England.

VELCO’s 740-mile transmission network serves a relatively small state with a peak electricity demand of about 1,000 megawatts. But it carries a significant amount of power from beyond the state’s borders, including hydropower from Canada and wind power from New York, said Brian Connaughton, VELCO’s vice president of transmission services and asset maintenance.

In particular, VELCO’s link to the grid operated by the New York Power Authority has experienced increasing volatility as the scale of variable wind power from upstate New York has dramatically increased, he said.

For decades, VELCO has used devices called phase-shifting transformers, or PSTs, to deal with sudden spikes and sags in voltage. But these mechanical devices aren’t designed to be switched as often as the one VELCO operates at its New York connection point has been forced to by the growing amount of intermittent wind power. In 2021, it just couldn’t do it anymore” and broke down, Connaughton said.

That single PST cost about $65 million and is the size of a small house. VELCO’s contingency plan called for replacing it with another PST from an installation on the eastern side of the state, which it transported on an oversize truck trailer along 62 miles of highways and dirt roads — not an easy job. VELCO was eventually able to repair the failed PST and put it and its replacement back in place. But if those repairs hadn’t been possible, it would have had to order a new device to be built and shipped from Europe, a process that could take years.

Smart Wires’ SmartValves — modular static synchronous series compensators (SSSCs), to be precise — are, by comparison, much smaller, simpler, and faster to build and deploy, he said. They can also be installed in a variety of configurations to meet a site’s specific power-management needs.

The SmartValve devices also allow for more controllability of the line,” Connaughton said. PSTs are mechanical devices that can make only coarse adjustments to power-flow conditions. SmartValves are software controlled and use digitally adjustable power electronics, which can provide support for the PST, provide some level of redundancy, and provide for more precise control of the line.”

A diagram explaining how SmartValves can alter the power flows across a transmission network
A diagram explaining how SmartValves can alter the power flows across a transmission network. (Smart Wires)

It’s these characteristics that differentiate SmartValves and similar advanced power-flow-control systems from PSTs and other traditional flexible AC transmission systems,” or FACTS, technologies that alter the high-voltage current flowing through transmission lines and substations.

Over the past two decades, traditional FACTS devices have been deployed around the world to solve grid problems. But they’re also enormous, expensive, and purpose-built to solve specific problems that may have changed in the decade or so it might take to design and deploy them. SmartValves, by contrast, offer far more flexibility to meet any future needs,” Connaughton said. That’s important in a time of rapid changes to the grid.

To be safe, however, VELCO will keep using its PST at the New York border while it tests the SmartValves it plans to deploy, he said. We do think it’s the right technology for the application. But we still need to figure out how it’s going to perform, and how we utilize it.”

What Smart Wires can do at larger scale: National Grid’s U.K. project

SmartValves are already doing a lot more for grids outside the U.S. But Smart Wires’ most advanced deployments also indicate how much work its U.S. utility partners have ahead of them.

U.K. transmission grid operator National Grid offers a good example. In 2018, it studied the impact of installing SmartValves at three substations in Northern England to test their use in reducing transmission congestion that limited power from Scotland’s wind farms from reaching the more populous southern part of England. Based on the success of that test, National Grid deployed 48 SmartValves in 2021, which are now actively redirecting power flows along its existing transmission lines in ways that have unlocked an estimated 2 gigawatts of additional north-to-south capacity.

That’s a lot cheaper and faster than building more transmission lines or replacing existing ones with higher-capacity lines, said Hêdd Roberts, Smart Wires’ general manager for Europe. You’re getting the solution a lot quicker — and you’ve got more years of avoided congestion,” he said. National Grid expects to save £390 million ($494 million) over a seven-year period due to reduced congestion costs and avoided infrastructure investment.

Those are precisely the kinds of values that studies indicate advanced power-flow controls and other GETs could achieve in the U.S. A 2020 report from DOE shared data from a 2018 study conducted by EPRI and grid-technology vendor ABB of the potential for power-flow control (PFC) devices to defer transmission buildouts or power-line replacements on the grid of Midwestern grid operator Southwest Power Pool. In many of the cases, the cost of the expansion or rebuild was three to 10 times greater than the PFC alternative.

Similar findings were revealed in a February report from decarbonization think tank RMI and grid-planning and engineering firm Quanta Technology that examined the potential for GETs to relieve grid constraints in PJM, the country’s largest wholesale electricity market. (Canary Media is an independent affiliate of RMI.)

Chart of comparison of cost of power flow controllers versus rebuilding or reconductoring power lines

What needs to happen next for advanced power-flow controls 

Just because a technology is capable of being deployed quickly doesn’t mean it will be, however. A host of technical and regulatory challenges remain.

First, VELCO must integrate these devices into its energy management system, the specialized software platforms used to monitor and control transmission grids. Next, it has to coordinate their operations with the generator dispatch and energy market systems of ISO New England, the grid operator for Vermont and five other New England states, Connaughton said.

Even the process of having the project submitted and approved for cost recovery from ISO New England — a standard step for any transmission project that goes through the grid operator — requires studies to prove that the technology is appropriate and suitable for the task, he said.

These are the kinds of things that slow down even the most easily deployed grid technologies. VELCO’s SmartValve project isn’t scheduled to come online until late 2026 or early 2027. That’s an almost lightning-fast turnaround in the utility world — but it’s far from the speed required to meet the pressing needs of congested U.S. transmission grids.

The Biden administration is hoping that launching grant-funded GETs projects across the country will lay the groundwork for much faster repeat rollouts. An April report from DOE laid out its plan to complete six to 12 GETs projects in the next several years that can serve as templates to allow future rounds of GETs deployments to happen quickly — within three to six months.

EPRI, a nonprofit power-sector research group mostly funded by utilities, has similar goals in Vermont, where it’s working on the project with VELCO and Smart Wires.

There are many, many players involved in getting the most out of grid-enhancing technologies,” said Anna Lafoyiannis, the engagement lead for EPRI’s GET SET Initiative, a project involving transmission owners, grid operators, regulators, engineering consultants, and other stakeholders. At the same time, the pace of the energy transition is forcing everybody involved in this sector to move faster.”

Smart Wires’ Roberts highlighted another key difference between the U.K. and the U.S.: how transmission operators earn money. In the U.K., regulations give transmission companies a share of the benefits for any savings they achieve,” he said. That incentive structure was absolutely critical.”

Most U.S. transmission-owning utilities, by contrast, operate under traditional cost-of-service structures that provide them guaranteed rates of profit for investments in new infrastructure. Investments in technologies that yield operational savings may allow utilities to avoid penalties for a failure to meet certain performance mandates but don’t offer the same level of financial rewards as maximizing their capital expenses.

DOE’s April report on advanced grid technologies highlighted this regulatory disincentive as a key barrier to getting GETs deployed at the speed and scale necessary to meet the country’s most pressing grid problems.

Grants are one way to overcome this disincentive; they essentially pay utilities to play ball. That’s why DOE’s grants are critical for Smart Wires’ first U.S. projects, Bloch-Rubin said. Those matching funds allow it to take ideas we’ve discussed with utilities for several years and bring them to fruition — because they can get them for half price.”

But at some point, the state regulators and regional grid operators must compel utilities to pursue projects that improve reliability and reduce the cost of power they deliver. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which regulates interstate transmission grids, has taken that on with a set of major interconnection and grid-planning reforms over the past year — although those reforms will take time to be put into effect.

Some states have also taken action. Among the slate of energy and climate legislation passed by Minnesota lawmakers this year is a law that adds GETs to the state’s transmission planning process and requires utilities owning more than 750 miles of transmission lines to evaluate GETs on highly congested lines. Virginia passed a law that requires utilities in the state to consider GETs in their long-term planning process. The WATT Coalition, a trade group representing GETs technology providers, is tracking other bills in California, Maine, and New York, as well as regulatory processes in Illinois and New York.

In some rare cases, U.S. utility economic incentives may also be aligned with deploying GETs to save money. For example, VELCO is owned by the state’s distribution utilities that also make up the customers for the electricity it delivers over its transmission network, said Shana Louiselle, VELCO’s communications manager. Under that unusual governance structure, profit goes right back to our distribution utilities in Vermont,” she said.

Those customer-serving utilities, in turn, are required to use those funds to reduce their revenue requirements — that is, to reduce the costs of customer bills,” she said.

In that context, VELCO’s deployment of SmartValves is an investment — but it’s not building a whole new transmission line,” she said. It’s finding ways to use the resources we already have, and in this case will add reliability, and hopefully sustainability, to the system it serves.”

Jeff St. John is director of news and special projects at Canary Media. He covers innovative grid technologies, rooftop solar and batteries, clean hydrogen, EV charging and more.