Grid tech laggards slow US shift to renewables

By Peter Behr | 06/04/2024 06:33 AM EDT

Sensors, software and cables will help manage demand surges from artificial intelligence-fused data centers and new factories.

Wind and energy cyber collage

Internet Archive Book Images/Flickr (drafting sketch); MaxPixel (turbines and transmission lines); Freepik (cyber)

New digital technology is being wired and programmed into power grids around the world to bolster their ability to use more renewable energy.

But energy experts say the most state-of-the-art technology needed to meet rising electricity consumption is struggling to get a foothold in the United States.

“Basically, we can’t do it without these technologies,” said Ann Rendahl, a member of the Washington State Utilities and Transportation Commission. “I don’t know how to put a finer point on it.”


Called grid-enhancing technologies, the sensors, software and advanced cables are expected to help manage surges in demand from artificial intelligence-fused data centers and new U.S. factories. Some applications allow for instantaneous monitoring and control of power flows as large-scale wind projects, solar panels and battery storage become more central to powering American companies and urban centers.

Grid technology is typically well into the weeds of state utility regulation. Costs for upgrading technology can be built into a utility’s regulated rate base. But it’s not necessarily a moneymaker and not often a major priority for electricity companies.

To the Biden administration, it’s a critical step to modernizing the grid. Grid technology has been dragged into the spotlight this year as President Joe Biden’s top energy and climate advisers look for ways to squeeze more capacity from existing power lines. Analysts say high-voltage transmission needs to at least double if the United States wants to meet Biden’s goal of a nearly zero-carbon electricity sector in 2035.

“We have a great deal of urgency about getting this done,” Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm told a conference at the White House last week. She noted that Biden’s first term is swiftly coming to an end. “That is all we know,” she said. “This notion of accelerating what we are doing is top of mind.”

The time it takes to build major transmission lines is part of the challenge. Planning, site selection, right-of-way acquisition and permitting hurdles in many cases take at least a decade. Some of that work can be shaved off through the use of high-tech sensors and new cables.

J.D. Sitton, chief executive of CTC Global, a manufacturer of advanced transmission cables, said 100,000 miles of his company’s lines have been deployed around the world. “All of those utilities predominantly are outside the United States,” he said during the conference at the White House.

“All our industry is wondering why this is not really fully taking off, and while there is still such a reluctance from the utilities to really take on this technology,” said Stephan Heberer, chief executive of Belgium-based Ampacimon, a manufacturer of grid monitoring and analytics technology with U.S. headquarters in Atlanta.

The technologies have high upfront costs, and some innovations are still too new to be trusted by conservative grid engineers. Some require costly software adaptations. And some conflict with utilities’ business strategies, experts have said.

The same “why not” question troubles Biden’s energy and climate advisers, some of whom led off the White House conference.

The Biden administration in October announced awards of up to $3.4 billion in Grid Resilience and Innovation Partnerships Program investments that will go to 58 grid enhancement projects in 44 states. An additional $3.9 billion of awards are in the pipeline. The White House has also approved a fast-track process for environment impact reviews on capacity expansion investments on existing high-voltage power lines.

Politics cloud the administration’s efforts to expand the U.S. grid to send more clean energy across the country. Last week, the administration said 21 states had signed on to work with the Department of Energy on grid modernization and expansion. All are headed by Democratic governors. On the other side of the coin are lawsuits supported by top Republicans challenging EPA’s recent rule requiring utilities that burn coal or that plan to build new gas plants to capture their carbon dioxide emissions.

AES, a Virginia-based power generation company that operates globally, uses dynamic line rating sensors and software that monitor weather conditions affecting power lines. Cooler weather and stronger breezes allow operators to safely dispatch more current without overheating lines.

Alexina Jackson, AES’s vice president for strategic development, said the sensors and computing have helped it find 60 percent in additional capacity. “We could just see what was there better,” she said, “and that empowers us to make better choices about the grid.”

Several speakers on a panel of state legislators said one sure step ahead is to require regulators and utilities to consider the new technologies in planning grid investments.

“Sometimes one of the quickest ways to do that is to put it into a statute,” said Colorado state Sen. Chris Hansen (D).

The Democratic-led Virginia Legislature has required that utilities’ long-term planning documents include a comprehensive assessment of the potential value of grid-enhancing technologies.

“[That’s] a signal that the General Assembly is watching and learning and wanting to see what obstacles may be coming up so that we can address them legislatively if need be,” Hansen said.

Nate Blouin, a Democrat in the Utah Senate, said partisan politics could upend smart policy. “It is going to be critical,” he said, “to extricate the politics and just make sure we keep this as bipartisan and as nonpartisan of a conversation as possible.”