NY project will use high-tech sensors to get more clean energy onto grid

National Grid and LineVision are expanding the capacity of New York’s grid to carry greater amounts of wind power. Why aren’t more U.S. utilities doing the same?

A LineVision sensor at the base of a National Grid transmission tower.
A LineVision sensor at the base of a National Grid transmission tower. (LineVision)
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In western New York state, a first-of-its-kind project — at least for the United States — could spur far greater investment in technologies that can help the existing power grid carry more clean energy. 

The project is run by National Grid, the company that operates much of the transmission grid network across the U.S. Northeast, and LineVision, a startup that makes dynamic-line-rating (DLR) technology that can sense the real-time capacity of transmission lines. The two companies have been doing pilot projects together for years, but the new deployment, set to be operational in 2023, will put this line-sensing technology to use in full-scale grid operations. 

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That could be a major boon for two wind farms at the end of the transmission corridor where this technology is being installed — the 125-megawatt Cassadaga and 78-megawatt Arkwright Summit projects — as well as for new wind farms being planned in the region. Currently, the two wind projects are periodically forced to reduce their output to the grid — or, in grid lingo, are curtailed — because transmission lines are thought to have insufficient capacity to carry their power. The new DLR deployment, along with five miles of circuit rebuilds, is expected to reduce curtailments of wind power along the transmission corridor by more than 350 megawatts and increase its overall capacity by an average of 190 megawatts. 

Weather conditions affect how much power can be carried on transmission lines, and high-tech DLR sensors attached to transmission lines give grid operators like National Grid real-world information on weather and thus on the carrying capacity of lines. In simple terms, colder air temperatures and higher wind speeds cool down power lines, giving them more capacity to carry energy — conveniently enough, at the same times when high winds are increasing wind-farm power output. 

Traditional static” line ratings for transmission lines, in contrast, don’t capture these environmental factors, forcing grid operators to restrict power flows based on worst-case expectations. 

This kind of real-time expansion of existing grid capacity could help overcome some major barriers to reaching New York state’s goal of getting 70 percent of its electricity from renewable resources by 2030, said LineVision CEO Hudson Gilmer. 

As we connect more wind, connect more solar, curtailments are increasing,” he said. The same grid constraints that are forcing curtailments from existing wind and solar farms are also preventing new wind and solar farms from being interconnected to the grid. 

Massive growth in renewable energy is needed to decarbonize the U.S. grid, but without a major expansion of grid capacity, most of the renewable energy growth that could be enabled by the Inflation Reduction Act won’t be possible, according to the REPEAT Project led by Princeton University. 

Getting to yes” on grid-enhancing technologies 

State and federal regulators are working hard to clear the way for new transmission lines. But in the meantime, DLR sensors and other grid-enhancing technologies” could significantly increase the capacity of the grid that’s already in place. 

That’s true of the transmission corridor where the National Grid project will be located, Gilmer said in an October interview. The corridor is scheduled to be refurbished with higher-capacity lines later this decade, he noted, because there’s going to be even more renewables rolling out.” But DLR can be deployed in weeks or months, rather than the five more years it takes for traditional infrastructure,” he said. This allows them to alleviate a lot of congestion in the intervening period.” 

LineVision, which raised $12.5 million last year and $33 million in October, is one of a number of DLR-technology providers working with transmission-grid operators around the world. In Europe, DLR technologies have been used for years in real-world operations to expand grid capacity and reduce congestion and curtailment. 

But in the United States, the utilities that own transmission grids have been far less aggressive in deploying DLR technology and other grid-enhancing technologies. That’s despite the fact that multiple studies indicate these technologies could yield dramatic improvements that could pay back the cost of deploying them in relatively short order. 

One big reason for this lack of action is that almost all U.S. utilities that own transmission grids make money by building new capital-intensive infrastructure that allows them to earn a steady, regulator-approved rate of return over the course of decades. As a February report from the U.S. Department of Energy noted, grid-enhancing technologies often represent lower capital cost alternatives to traditional investments such as new transmission lines, meaning a lower overall return for investors.” At the same time, very few transmission-owning utilities earn money by making their existing power grids operate more efficiently. 

State and federal regulators are starting to make changes to this perverse incentive structure. In New York, the state’s Public Service Commission has required all utilities to consider DLR technologies as an integral part of their grid plans to achieve the state’s renewable energy targets, Gilmer noted. That puts the state out in front in terms of understanding the role of grid-enhancing technologies broadly, and DLR specifically, to accelerate meeting their renewable and climate targets.” 

Other utilities in other parts of the country are starting to experience similar regulatory pressures. In Pennsylvania, utilities Duquesne Light and PPL have installed DLR technologies to improve the reliability and capacity of certain transmission corridors that would otherwise need to undergo expensive and time-consuming upgrades. Both utilities are within the territory of mid-Atlantic grid operator PJM, which has moved more quickly than other U.S. regional grid entities to incorporate DLR into its energy-market and grid-operations structures. 

National Grid, which is headquartered in the U.K. and operates that country’s transmission grid, has also been more active than many U.S. utilities in integrating grid-enhancing technologies in its operations on both sides of the Atlantic. Its venture capital arm, National Grid Partners, has invested in LineVision and other startups with innovative grid technology.

Utilities don’t have the reputation of being the most forward-looking” companies,” Lisa Lambert, president of National Grid Partners, noted in a Monday interview. Reliability, security, safety are seen as the primary values.” But the pressures of climate change are forcing utilities across the world to move far more quickly to experiment, to take some risk,” she said. 

Multiple pilot projects in the U.S. and the U.K. have given National Grid confidence to move ahead with its DLR deployment in New York and another rollout in the U.K., she added. LineVision’s sensors have the ability to boost our transmission-line capacity by more than 30 percent,” she said. If we could multiply that by every region where we have jurisdiction, that could be a massive savings.”

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Jeff St. John is director of news and special projects at Canary Media.