Clean energy journalism for a cooler tomorrow

The Biden admin has a plan to get more mileage out of the power grid

The Department of Energy released a new roadmap to help the U.S. adopt tech that can give the grid a much-needed boost in capacity and reliability.
By Jeff St. John

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Workers install a LineVision dynamic line rating sensor at the base of a transmission tower.
Workers install a LineVision dynamic line rating sensor at the base of a transmission tower. (LineVision)

How can the U.S. plug more solar and wind power into the grid and meet fast-growing electricity demand when it doesn’t have enough power lines to handle all those tasks? 

A good start would be to adopt technologies that help get more mileage out of existing power grids, according to a new report from the Department of Energy.

The DOE’s three-to-five-year roadmap starts with directing billions of dollars into innovative grid deployments,” featuring technologies ranging from advanced grid equipment to next-generation grid-control software platforms, that can serve as templates for utilities across the nation.

It also recommends that utilities and their state regulators alter existing policies — like cost-of-service structures, which reward utilities for spending money on grid infrastructure — that have stymied adoption of these technologies in the U.S., compared with in Europe, Australia, and other parts of the world.

The goal of the DOE’s plan is to make such technologies a standard part of how power grids are built and operated across the country. That could solve big grid challenges in far less time than it takes to build new power lines — something the country is struggling to do, despite the urgent need to rapidly connect more clean energy to the grid in order to displace fossil fuels.

We all know that we need new expansion of the grid, but we also all know that it takes over a decade right now to build some new transmission lines,” Maria Robinson, director of the DOE’s Grid Deployment Office, said in a Monday press event introducing the report. The solutions that we talk about in this report are ready to go today and can serve as a bridge to address near-term concerns and needs.”

The plan to make the grid do more with less

The immediate challenge for the U.S. is to get six to 12 projects using a variety of these technologies up and running in the next several years, Robinson said. Once those projects have proved their value, other utilities can copy them far more rapidly, with subsequent scale-up happening in less than three to six months,” she said.

Some of the projects DOE envisions are already underway. Others are set to launch in the next year, backed by billions of dollars in federal funding. 

DOE Liftoff report graphic describing steps to broadly commercialize innovative grid deployments in the next five years

But that first challenge may be the easy part. The next step is convincing utilities to get on board.

The group is inherently cautious; keeping the grid up and running is their number one job,” and they tend to see novel technologies as a potential threat to maintaining that reliability, Robinson said.

They also operate under a very specific set of economic incentives: Almost all U.S. utilities make money by earning a regulated rate of return on capital investments like new power lines. Money spent improving the efficiency of existing infrastructure, by contrast, is passed on to customers at cost without generating a return on investment.

As DOE’s report notes, In the absence of a financial incentive or regulatory mandate, utilities are likely to prioritize investments in other projects that generate higher financial returns, rather than prioritizing solutions that may drive better overall system or societal impact.”

And failing to prioritize investment in these technologies could mean failing to deal with the biggest near-term challenge for the country’s clean power goals: expanding grid capacity to connect the hundreds of gigawatts of wind, solar, and energy storage projects now facing yearslong wait times and multimillion-dollar grid upgrade charges.

These technologies could also help grid operators handle increasing grid reliability issues caused by extreme weather events, by giving them more flexibility to reroute power flows from where electricity is available to where it’s needed. They could also help grids serve the looming demand for power from data centers, factories and electric vehicles, and homes, businesses, and industrial facilities trying to replace fossil fuels with electricity.

Dealing with these demands has put a level of pressure on regulators, utilities, and regional transmission operators to be able to find ways of moving faster,” said Jigar Shah, head of DOE’s Loan Programs Office, which administers hundreds of billions of dollars of federal lending authority that has been used for projects including large-scale grid expansion.

We need to start changing norms,” Shah said during Monday’s press event. The business-as-usual approach that worked in a world without demand growth and extreme weather is simply not going to work moving forward. Utilities, regulators, and everyone across industry needs to start taking a more proactive, growth-oriented approach to investing in the grid. Our reality is changing, and the grid industry needs to realistically embrace this change to keep up with it.” 

A grab bag of advanced grid technologies

Pathways to Commercial Liftoff: Innovative Grid Deployment” is the latest in a series of DOE reports examining how government funding can spur broader private-sector investment in everything from advanced geothermal power to solutions for decarbonizing heavy industry.

The technologies the new report covers could increase the capacity of U.S. grids to serve peak electricity demand by 20 to 100 gigawatts, the DOE found. The high end of that range would be enough to meet the expected increase in peak electricity demands from commercial and industrial growth and the electrification of transportation and buildings by 2035 — and at less than a quarter of the cost of conventional alternatives,” Robinson said. 

DOE Liftoff report graphic showing capacity benefits of innovative grid deployments to meet growing electricity demand

DOE’s report covers a wide array of advanced grid solutions” technologies. Some are aimed at expanding the capacity of the low-voltage distribution grids that deliver electricity from big substations to millions of individual customers.

Those include advanced distribution management systems” (ADMS), the software and controls platforms already used by many U.S. utilities and made by major grid vendors and software startups alike. These ADMS platforms, akin to control centers for utility grid operators, allow utilities to monitor and manage a range of grid devices that can help do things like restore power outages and integrate clean energy onto grids.

DOE’s report also highlights the value of virtual power plant software that can control distributed energy resources — a term that includes systems using rooftop solar plus batteries, electric vehicles, and EV chargers, as well as smart thermostats and appliances that can adjust when they use electricity — to help balance the grid. A previous DOE Liftoff” report found that virtual power plants could meet 10 to 20 percent of peak grid demand across the U.S. by 2030.

On the high-voltage side of the grid, DOE’s report covers a range of grid-enhancing technologies (GETs), a catchall term for a variety of hardware and software that can expand the capacity of the country’s overtaxed transmission grids.

Those include advanced conductors, a class of next-generation power cables that can replace older lines on existing transmission towers, dramatically expanding capacity without the cost, siting, and permitting challenges involved in building new transmission corridors — a process known as reconductoring.”

Other, even lower-cost ways to squeeze more capacity out of existing transmission lines are available. One key technology is dynamic line rating (DLR) systems — sensors and software that can detect how weather, wind speeds, and other conditions alter the real-time capacity of power lines, giving grid operators more leeway to dispatch higher levels of power flows across them at certain times.

DLR systems can be deployed within months and increase transmission capacity by 10 to 30 percent at less than 5 percent of the cost of rebuilding lines, as proved by deployments in Europe and, more recently, in Indiana, Minnesota, New York state, and Pennsylvania.

Existing grid-control devices can also be used to greater effect with a new class of topology optimization” software, which conducts dizzyingly complex calculations that allow grid operators to route power across transmission networks to avoid congested areas and take advantage of underused parts of those networks.

And on the cutting-edge side of GETs, advanced power-flow control (PFC) devices can alter how power flows along transmission lines to increase or decrease their capacity relative to other parts of the network.

Taken together, these technologies have enormous potential.

2021 study found that using DLR systems, topology optimization, and advanced PFCs on transmission grids in Oklahoma and Kansas could double clean-energy capacity and save billions of dollars in grid congestion costs, paying off the cost of deployment within a year. An April study by the University of California, Berkeley, and think tank GridLab found that wide-scale reconductoring with advanced conductors could quadruple the transmission capacity of the grid by 2035.

How to get the grid upgraded ASAP

Most U.S. utilities have only just begun to capture the capacity expansion and cost-cutting benefits that these technologies provide, Robinson said. DOE’s new report lays out a number of reasons for this, as well as ways to overcome them — starting with priming the pump by funding projects that deploy multiple cutting-edge technologies. 

DOE Liftoff report graphic describing challenges and solutions for innovative grid deployments

DOE has gotten the ball rolling with a series of grants from its $10.5 billion Grid Resilience and Innovation Partnerships Program, created by 2021’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, according to Robinson. In October, DOE awarded $3.5 billion in grants from that program to 58 projects across 44 states, including $2.1 billion for projects using the technologies covered in the new report, and the next round of grants will also focus on these technologies, she said. 

One key goal of these projects is to make sure that we’re not just buying down the cost but setting an example for other utilities and utility commissioners,” Robinson noted. That’s an important step in overcoming the institutional and regulatory barriers that are keeping utilities from deploying these technologies at a much broader scale. 

We want to align incentives and economic models to drive that utility investment,” she said. 

Mandates from federal and state regulators could also push utilities to deploy these technologies, despite their preference to spend money on capital infrastructure instead. The WATT Coalition, a trade group representing grid-enhancing technology companies, is tracking legislation now under consideration at the federal level and in states including California, Colorado, Illinois, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New York, and Utah. 

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), which regulates interstate transmission grids, has also called on grid operators and utilities to consider alternative transmission technologies” as part of a major interconnection order it issued last year. FERC is expected to instruct grid operators and utilities to make similar technologies part of their long-term transmission plans in a much-anticipated order later this year.

Importantly, these solutions can be deployed without increasing costs to American households,” Robinson said. For example, utilities could more efficiently use the money they’re currently spending on replacing assets with conventional technology to proactively upgrade the assets with some advanced technologies to drive greater impact.”

Shah noted that DOE’s Loan Programs Office has already issued $3 billion in virtual power plant loan guarantees and has $250 billion in lending authority to help utilities modernize and decarbonize their generation and grid assets. But he also emphasized that utility regulators ultimately bear responsibility for driving sustainable investment in grid upgrades like these. 

Our utilities spent $26 billion on replacing transmission and distribution systems in 2023,” Shah said. We shouldn’t be just replacing aging infrastructure with outdated technology.” 

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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.