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Clean energy journalism for a cooler tomorrow

Smart tech could help fix the biggest barrier to building clean energy

A new report finds that grid-enhancing technologies” can help gigawatts of solar and wind leapfrog the clean energy logjam — and save a ton of money.
By Jeff St. John

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A utility worker in a cherrypicker performs upgrades on high-voltage transmission lines

Over the past decade or so, study after study has shown the potential for grid-enhancing technologies” to improve the capacity and reliability of existing transmission grids without needing to deal with the difficult task of building new power lines.

Now, a new report shows how these technologies — called GETs” for short — could clear the way for gigawatts’ worth of clean energy projects to connect to the 84,000-mile transmission network linking states from Illinois to Virginia and deliver billions of dollars of savings in the process.

That’s an important set of findings for grid operators, utilities, regulators and policymakers trying to solve the biggest challenge to adding new clean energy to U.S. power grids: the massive interconnection backlogs and expensive grid upgrades that are holding back hundreds of gigawatts of wind, solar and energy storage projects.

The report, which was funded by Amazon and conducted by decarbonization think tank RMI and grid-planning and engineering firm Quanta Technology, is the first to look at GETs in an interconnection process,” said Katie Siegner, a manager in RMI’s Carbon-Free Electricity practice. (Canary Media is an independent affiliate of RMI.)

The benefits are significant,” Siegner said — gigawatts of new clean energy, billions of dollars of production cost savings. Let’s ask utilities and grid operators to study these.”

The massive potential of GETs has driven utilities and grid operators in Europe and Australia to adopt the technology at significant scale over the past decade. The U.S. lags behind on that front, the report notes — both due to lack of familiarity and experience with using the technologies in question, and because utilities in much of the U.S. have misaligned incentives” that reward them for making more expensive grid investments instead of seeking lower-cost alternatives.

But with the very slow pace of U.S. grid expansion stymieing clean energy growth and making it harder to protect customers against extreme-weather-driven blackouts, energy experts are pushing utilities, regulators and policymakers to move more quickly to implement these technologies and techniques. RMI and Quanta’s work represents another proving point for the value of making this effort, Siegner said — and a model for how PJM and other grid operators could put it into practice.

There’s definitely some leveling up and training and resources required to do this,” she said. But it’s not an insurmountable challenge.”

What are GETs, and how can they help bring more clean energy online? 

The report examines the potential for three types of GETs — dynamic line rating systems, topology optimization and advanced power-flow controllers — to replace the need for traditional grid upgrades. The analysis focuses on Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia, five of the 13 states served by PJM, the country’s largest wholesale electricity market. Each of these technologies works in a different way to enhance the capacity, flexibility, and efficiency of the current grid,” the report explains.

Dynamic line ratings (DLRs) provide real-time information on the capacity of individual grid circuits, which changes depending on weather, wind speed and other conditions. That allows grid operators to shift or curtail power output to make use of that real-time capacity, rather than relying on traditional static” capacity ratings.

Illustration of how dynamic line rating technology expands transmission grid capacity
(RMI, Quanta Technology)

Topology optimization (TO) software allows grid operators to use existing grid-control technologies to route power across transmission networks in ways that avoid congested areas and take advantage of underused parts of those networks.

Illustration of how topology optimization software expands transmission grid capacity
(RMI, Quanta Technology)

And advanced power flow controls (PFCs) — power electronics devices that can alter the characteristics of how power flows along transmission lines to increase or decrease their capacity relative to other parts of the network — can add even more flexibility to grid operations.

Illustration of how advanced power flow control technologies expand transmission grid capacity
(RMI, Quanta Technology)

Each of these technologies has been deployed in multiple configurations in Europe, Australia and more recently in the United States to solve power flow congestion problems, increase grid reliability and reduce the need to curtail wind and solar power that can’t otherwise be accommodated on the grid from moment to moment.

But they aren’t yet being deployed at the scale that the RMI and Quanta study envision — nor are they even routinely considered in planning paradigms such as grid operators’ interconnection studies,” the report notes.

How to model the climate — and cost — benefits of GETs

The new report recreates the steps that PJM would go through to undertake an interconnection study, Siegner said. First, Quanta replicated PJM’s interconnection-study process by using industry-standard power flow modeling software. It studied all the projects now in the PJM queue in each of the five states the report analyzes and determined how adding them to the grid would create constraints” — overloaded transmission lines or substations and other impacts on grid reliability.

It then filtered out a subset of projects that would likely not be viable and drop out of the queue due to high network upgrade costs” and assessed the remainder to see how the constraints they would create could be mitigated with GETs instead of traditional grid upgrades.

The study determines that deploying the three GETs it examined to solve those constraints could accommodate up to 6.6 gigawatts of new solar, wind and battery projects within PJM’s system by 2027. That’s not a huge amount compared to PJM’s 183 gigawatts of existing generation capacity — but it would help alleviate the yearslong wait times for the hundreds of gigawatts’ worth of wind, solar and battery storage projects now in the queue to be connected to the grid in PJM territory.

Chart of interconnection capacity increases enabled by grid-enhancing technologies in five PJM states
(RMI, Quanta Technology)

The cost of deploying those grid-enhancing technologies pales in comparison to the price tag of standard upgrades like reconductoring or rebuilding a line, the report finds. In some scenarios, GETs would cost just a few million dollars compared to standard upgrades with price tags in the hundreds of millions.

Because project developers are responsible for paying these costs, these savings could be the difference that allows a developer to move forward” rather than abandoning a project. 

Chart comparing cost of typical grid upgrade costs versus grid-enhancing technology alternatives in PJM
(RMI, Quanta Technology)

What’s more, bringing inexpensive clean-energy resources online could significantly reduce the costs passed on to utility customers in PJM territory by reducing grid congestion that increases wholesale energy prices and making more lower-cost clean energy available on its wholesale energy market. Although not typically part of grid-interconnection studies,” RMI modeled this impact in order to more fully show what you can get with GETs,” Siegner said.

That analysis found that additional clean energy and reduced congestion would lower energy production costs in PJM territory by just under $1 billion in 2027 and increase to more than $1 billion in annual savings by 2030, for a cumulative total of $7 billion over the next six years. That’s compared to a cost of just $100 million to deploy the mix of GETs the report covers.

Chart for cost savings resulting from deploying grid-enhancing technologies to expand clean energy interconnection in PJM
(RMI, Quanta Technology)

Finally, moving more quickly to add more clean energy would reduce the carbon-emissions impact of PJM’s generation mix by 3.5 percent in 2027, 2.9 percent in 2030 and 2.6 percent in 2033, the report states. That’s because cheaper solar and wind power could be chosen over more expensive coal and fossil-gas-fired power more often, as the following graph of a typical day indicates.

Chart of daily dispatch of grid-enhancing technology enabled clean energy versus fossil fuel-generated energy in PJM
(RMI, Quanta Technology)

How GETs can help solve U.S. interconnection woes

Finding ways to bring new clean-energy resources onto the PJM grid faster could help solve a number of problems for the grid operator — problems shared by its peers across the country.

For one, PJM’s queue has become so severely backlogged that it has paused new interconnection applications until 2026 as it works to reform its processes. That’s left more than half of the roughly 2,500 projects now seeking interconnection in limbo. That delay has also left many of the states in its territory at risk of missing clean-energy targets over the remainder of the decade, according to an analysis from the Natural Resources Defense Council.

That inability to bring more clean-energy resources online has coincided with growing reliability challenges for PJM’s grid, which could make it harder to shut down money-losing and polluting power plants. Late last year, the grid operator asked Talen Energy, the owner of a fossil-fueled power plant complex in Maryland, to delay the plant’s closure from 2025 until new transmission lines could be completed in 2028 to avoid degraded grid reliability” in the intervening time.

PJM is far from the only region facing yearslong wait times and increasingly high grid-upgrade costs for solar, wind and battery projects. That U.S.-wide backlog has swelled to more than 2,000 gigawatts as of the end of last year — and while many of those projects are unlikely to be built, the sheer volume is overwhelming grid operators across the country.

Using GETs to boost the transmission grid could alleviate these problems for the grid nationwide. But GETs are just starting to be deployed in the U.S. — and for now, their widespread benefits exist only in reports and computer models.

From computer modeling to real-world deployment: The next step for GETs

That could change under a new federal mandate. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission issued a major interconnection order last year directing that grid operators such as PJM begin considering alternative transmission technologies,” including some GETs, in their interconnection-study processes. The country’s grid operators, which manage grids that deliver electricity to about two-thirds of the U.S. population, are in the midst of crafting compliance plans.

Map of U.S. grid operators overseen by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission
The territories of major regional transmission organizations and independent system operators (Sustainable FERC Project)

FERC is expected to issue another order on long-term transmission planning in the coming months that may also include GETs in some fashion. But the timeline for grid operators to file compliance plans for FERC orders, and for those plans to be assessed and approved prior to implementation, can take a year or more.

In the meantime, a number of U.S. utilities and grid operators have deployed GETs in some form — including several utilities in PJM territory. Pennsylvania-based utilities Duquesne Light and PPL have both deployed dynamic line rating technologies from vendors LineVision and Ampacimon, respectively, to better manage power flows on congested transmission lines. Midwestern grid operators MISO and SPP have used topology optimization and grid-analytics software from vendors NewGrid and Pearl Street Technologies to inform interconnection, grid-planning and congestion-relief studies.

Some of the projects to be funded by $3.5 billion in U.S. Department of Energy grants also involve GETs. Duquesne Light won a grant to expand its dynamic line rating deployments, and utility holding company Algonquin Power won a grant to deploy advanced power-flow controls in Illinois and Texas. 

To date, however, U.S. utilities have largely been testing GETs rather than integrating the technologies into larger-scale planning. That’s the case for AES Corp., a utility holding company that’s been testing dynamic line rating technologies on transmission lines in Indiana and Ohio.

The current gap in experience in how to model the functionality and quantify the benefits of these technologies is a barrier” to their broader use, Alexina Jackson, the utility’s vice president of strategic development, said in a statement accompanying the RMI-Quanta report. The kind of analysis represented in that report begins to break down that barrier and encourages stakeholders to realize their benefits.”

There’s another barrier to utilities embracing GETs — the incentive that utilities have to prioritize more costly, capital-intensive projects that earn a higher rate of return. A 2022 report from the Department of Energy found that utilities in New York state could pay back the costs of deploying GETs within half a decade — far more quickly than traditional grid upgrades. But it also pointed out that​“GETs often represent lower capital cost alternatives to traditional investments such as new transmission lines, meaning a lower overall return for investors.”

Meanwhile, clean-energy project developers have begun to use GETs software as a tool to identify less-congested grid locations to seek interconnection and to start to estimate the likely grid upgrade costs they’ll need to pay if they’re allowed to connect. Developers know that right now, it’s to a large extent on them to be proposing GETs for their projects where it makes sense,” Siegner said.

In fact, RMI was able to identify only one real-world interconnection study in which GETs were actively approved by a utility and grid operator. That involved a wind project in Illinois that successfully petitioned PJM and utility Commonwealth Edison to allow it to use advanced power-flow control systems from vendor Smart Wires to avoid paying for roughly $100 million in system upgrades.

That dropped the cost of interconnection to $12 million and the timeline from three years to 15 months — which made the difference between that project getting done or dropping out of the queue,” Siegner said.

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.