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Getting more out of the grid we've already built
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Getting more out of the grid we've already built

A conversation with Julia Selker of the WATT Coalition.
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Clean-energy transmission lines in the US are horribly congested, and buildout of new ones is agonizingly slow. Yet while other parts of the world use grid-enhancing technologies (GETs) to significantly improve performance of existing transmission lines, the US system has been resistant to deploying them. In this episode, Julia Selker, head of a GETs trade group called the WATT Coalition, discusses the potential of GETs.

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Text transcript:

David Roberts

One of the primary threats to the clean energy buildout spurred by the Inflation Reduction Act is a lack of transmission. Models show that hitting our Paris climate targets would involve building two to three times our current transmission capacity, yet new lines are desperately slow to come online. Meanwhile, existing lines are congested and hundreds of gigawatts of new clean energy sits waiting in interconnection queues.

Wouldn’t it be cool if there were some relatively cheap and speedy ways to get more capacity out of the transmission infrastructure we’ve already built? To ease some of that congestion and get more clean energy online while we wait for new lines to be completed?

As it happens, there are. They are called grid-enhancing technologies, or GETs, and they can improve the performance of existing transmission lines by as much as 40 percent.

Julia Selker

It’s just that, in the US at least, utilities aren’t deploying them. They’ve been tested and deployed all over the world, but the US system has resisted using them at scale.

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I contacted Julia Selker, head of the Working for Advanced Transmission Technologies (WATT) Coalition, a GETs trade group, to discuss exactly what these technologies are, their enormous potential to ease grid congestion, why utilities still resist them, and what kinds of policies can help move them along.

So with no further ado, Julia Selker. Welcome to Volts. Thank you so much for coming.

Julia Selker

Thank you so much for having me.

David Roberts

This is, to me, a very exciting topic that is like many exciting topics in the world of energy, somewhat obscured behind a wall of jargon and technical sounding terms. So we're going to do our best up front to decode some of this and lay it out in a simple way so people can grasp it. But before we get to GETs, before we get to the GETs, let's talk just a little bit about the need here, the need for more capacity on the transmission system. Run down a little bit, because I know you've done or have been involved in some research on grid congestion and things like that, give us a little rundown of why this topic is so important right now.

Julia Selker

Yeah, absolutely. The United States is basically desperate for transmission capacity and there are a few ways that we see that in data, and one is transmission congestion. So this is a quantification of the cost of a transmission constraint. So if you don't have enough transmission to deliver the cheapest electricity, you'll then have to turn on a thermal generator or something more expensive than a wind or solar generator, for instance, and that will increase costs for consumers. So back in the day, let's say 2016, the market monitors found $3.7 billion of congestion in the regional transmission organizations and the independent system operators that actually transparently report congestion data.

And if you scale that to the whole US, we're looking at about $6.5 billion in congestion in 2016. But in 2022, the national number was over $20 billion in congestion.

David Roberts

20 billion.

Julia Selker

20 billion. It's rising astronomically. And it makes sense: There's more low cost generation available, gas prices are going up. So the redispatch cost is another term for this is going to get higher as you have to curtail more renewables and dispatch more expensive generation because there's just not enough transmission to deliver all the clean energy. So we also see this in clean energy interconnection costs and delays. Back when there was a lot of headroom on the grid from large scale infrastructure expansion back in the day that projects could interconnect at lower costs and with faster timelines.

But now projects are seeing bigger and bigger upgrades, all that headroom is used up and projects are seeing tens or hundreds of millions of dollars in transmission upgrades that need to happen in order for them to interconnect to the grid.

David Roberts

Volts listeners will recall just a few weeks ago had a pod on interconnection queues and they'll recall that sort of you get in a single file line and if you happen to be the project that triggers a need for a transmission upgrade, that whole cost gets added to your project, which renders many projects unviable. And that's just happening more and more often now because the grid is more and more congested and there's more and more upgrades needed. So it's making that process take longer too.

Julia Selker

Yeah, and beyond the cost. I've heard from clean energy developers that they are looking at seven years to actually make the transmission upgrade, or in one case, four years to szslchedule an outage to begin construction. So that's not sustainable at all. And there are policy actions that are taking place to try to make these processes more efficient. But the fundamental issue is there's not enough transmission capacity and we need to be finding it fast.

David Roberts

There's no way to fiddle with processes enough to get around that, which is there's just not enough transmission capacity.

Julia Selker

Exactly.

David Roberts

Given all that, we need more transmission capacity. New transmission capacity takes forever to build in the US. Which is a problem a lot of people are working on. But even reforms look like they're years out and then more years out to build the new lines. So here we have then this set of technologies that can help us get more transmission capacity out of the existing grid. The GETs, the grid enhancing technologies. So let's talk about first what counts as a GET and let's run through the big ones.

Julia Selker

Sure. So there are some practical reasons that certain technologies would fall under the GETs category, and there are some policy reasons too, so I'll cover both of those. But the items that we think about are does this technology make use of the dynamic capabilities of the grid to increase transmission capacity? That's sort of the practical category. So, we're used to thinking about transmission lines, transformers, substations. We install them, and they have these set capabilities that are based on really conservative assumptions. And when you have digital technologies and high tech communications, you can actually monitor these assets and make more efficient use of them depending on grid conditions.

And another value we look for from a technical perspective is the redeployability. So if you build a new transmission line, great, you have a new line right where you put it. But with these technologies, you can use them as stopgap measures. If you have a big line under construction and you want to reduce costs in the interim, or you're expecting grid topology or the grid assets to change or increase, but you're not sure how. It's still kind of a zero regrets option because you deploy it, it pays for itself quickly and you can move it later.

David Roberts

Right. So redeployability just means you can put it on a line and if you don't need it on that line anymore, you can take it off that line and put it on another line. It's not a permanent addition to a line.

But it could be. Certainly there's no expiration date, but the flexibility is —

Right, you can leave it on, but you can move it if you need to.

Julia Selker

Right.

David Roberts

And so, given those parameters, let's walk through the three big ones. The first one helps elucidate something you said. I think the first one is called dynamic line ratings. So, I think the important background for people to understand here is today you build a transmission line, you have the transformer and the line, the familiar pieces of infrastructure, and basically a grid operator has to know how much energy can I push through that line? And to come to that number, they make some estimates about how much will the line sag if power is going through it, what are the sort of ambient weather conditions typically in this area?

So, they do these estimates to come up with a capacity estimation for that line and the grid operator uses that estimate. But of course, because these are estimates that you're doing sort of in advance, you have to be very conservative. You have to be careful that your estimates are not on the high end so that you don't overload the line and blow stuff up. So all of which adds up to the fact that existing transmission lines typically only use like 30% to 40% of their capacity. Is that right? Just out of sort of an abundance of caution because you just don't know specifically in real time what's going on in that line.

Is that roughly correct?

Julia Selker

Yeah. So historically a lot of transmission lines use a static line rating, so they'll assume it's going to be a hot day and that there's not very much wind. The wind has the highest impact on the cooling of a transmission line. So they're like, "Okay, this is how much the line will be cooling, and this is how much the current would heat that line. And that's our limit." But they might use that limit year round, even in the winter. So transmission owners have been updating to seasonal ratings. That's an improvement. FERC is requiring lines to use ambient adjusted ratings, which will take into account temperature by 2025.

But like I said, dynamic line ratings also include wind. They're at a more granular level, so they might be updated every 15 minutes, for instance.

David Roberts

Right, so dynamic line ratings, if I could just back up dynamic line ratings just means you attach something on the line that will give you real-time information about those conditions that you were previously estimating on a seasonal or yearly basis.

Julia Selker

Yeah, it could be on the line itself. It could be on the transmission tower looking at the line with LiDAR. It could be a weather station, too. It could even be in the fiber optic cables that are strung on the same towers as transmission lines. Those are really good temperature measurement tools as well. So there are lots of different approaches to dynamic line ratings. And they're not just real-time, they're also forecast, which is really important, because when you're making your dispatch decisions, the day ahead forecast is critical and maybe even further ahead. So that's one of the major values of DLR.

Once you've had the sensor on your line for a few weeks or months, you know how the line heats and cools, and you can use those forecasts.

David Roberts

Right. So, long story short, by getting more real-time data about the conditions around a line and reliable forecasts around the condition of the line, basically, grid operators can get closer to the actual capacity of these lines rather than stopping so far short out of caution. So how big is that delta between, say, I was using a yearly, static yearly, rating for a line, and then I shifted to DLR, so I was getting real-time information about that line and good forecasts. How much more, theoretically, can I push through that line once I have DLR attached?

Julia Selker

Yeah. So in one 2021 deployment across three states, DLR exceeded static reference ratings by 9% to 33% in winter and 26% to 36% in summer. And so that's a big range, of course, but you're still looking at big capacity increases. And also the fact that the extra capacity found in summer was higher kind of shows that they were probably using seasonal ratings. And the summer rating was very conservative in terms of heating. But then in this same case study, the DLR actually found 15% of hours either matched the static rating or was below the static rating.

So DLR also shows you in cases of extreme weather, for instance, whether you should be running less power along the line. And if we're dealing with weather patterns like heat domes and these unprecedented situations, that's when that kind of monitoring could be really life saving.

David Roberts

Right. Because even with the caution of static ratings, with extreme weather, you might exceed even those bounds.

Julia Selker

Right.

David Roberts

So basically, DLRs can tell you what's really going on. So that's somewhere from 9% to 33%, more transmission of power through the same line, through the addition of DLRs.

Julia Selker

Right.

David Roberts

More or less. And then the second one, even nerdier sounding, "advanced flow power control," what do we mean by this?

Julia Selker

Yeah, so there are existing technologies that utilities use to control power flow, but the advanced ones are just that much better. Basically, these are devices that go at the substation between the generators and the load. And often in that pathway, you'll have multiple circuits that could deliver power. But power likes to follow the path of least resistance we say. Technically it's impedance, which is a combination of resistance and other items. But advanced power flow control can adjust that impedance to push and pull power over different circuits. So say you have one circuit that's just maxed out 100%.

You have two circuits that are more like 20, 30%, you can push that power off of the maxed out circuit onto the others, and then you can actually add generation behind them.

David Roberts

One of my theories about this is that the sort of average person on the street, their familiarity with technology is mostly around the Internet and phones and stuff like that, and digital stuff. And I just think the average person on the street, probably, if they have thought about it at all, thinks in their head that the people controlling the grid just have much more fine grained digital level control than they actually do. But the standard practice now is for the power to just go the way it goes based on physics. And if it runs into a congested line, you're just screwed.

So this is like the advance here is just you can push power where on your system it needs to go based on availability, which seems so — such a rudimentary level of control. It's a little wild that it's new, it's a little wild that we didn't already have that, I think.

Julia Selker

Yeah, there are sort of analog approaches to all of these GETS in terms of: There are ways that you can reroute power manually by flipping switches, or you could use emergency line ratings instead of dynamic line ratings where you say, "Okay, I could run more power for 2 hours or 15 minutes," but we have the technology to do that more strategically. And that means you can do it every day instead of in these sort of emergency situations.

David Roberts

Right. And you can do it, I presume, much faster digitally than you can by running around physically throwing switches.

Julia Selker

Right.

David Roberts

And so, the third of the big three here is "topology optimization," the nerdiest sounding one of all. So, I think people are familiar with topology, like a topological map, which shows you heights, basically shows you elevations. So, in grid terms, the topology of a grid is just sort of the equivalent of elevation in that sort of like power will go, quote unquote, "downhill" towards the easiest place to go. That's the topology of the grid. So, what does it mean to optimize that topology?

Julia Selker

Basically, it gives you sort of a map of everything that's going on on the grid. All of your power lines, all of your generators, all of your load and topology optimization software lives with a system operator or other entities could use it, but they can say, "Oh, we see congestion here, what are our options for reducing it?" And one example is you might see congestion on line A, and if you switch off line B, that actually balances everything out so that line A is no longer overwhelmed. So, it's counterintuitive sometimes. And that's why we need software to do it, because today transmission owners would undertake reconfigurations, as they're called, manually by flipping switches.

But it's just based on operator experience, whereas this software lets you actually look at all of the options, all of the interventions and quickly assess the system impacts. Because the other thing is, like I said, it's counterintuitive. It takes some math to figure out exactly what's going to happen when you switch something off.

David Roberts

Right. Especially as these things get more and more complex, the amount of interactions involved. I mean, again, not to beat this point to death, but it's just wild that today grids are run by Bob, who just knows this grid because he's rode this horse for 20 years and he knows its quirks and he's going around physically throwing switches, trying to get things to work smoothly. It's just so much more analog. I think that people have it in their heads that these things work. So, this just replaces Bob's intuitions with software basically that analyzes the shape of the grid and can come up with solutions for which switches to throw that will maximize the smooth performance of the grid, basically, yes?

Julia Selker

Yeah. And it's worth acknowledging that when we had a bunch of thermal generators that operated really consistently that we knew their costs, there wasn't this variability. You didn't have to be so dynamic in your operation of the grid. But the fact is we're moving into a new era and that means that the dynamic capabilities of the grid will absolutely be very valuable. So, for instance, topology optimization could reduce congestion costs in PJM by 50% in one study, just by reconfiguring the grid, depending on —

David Roberts

50%?!

Julia Selker

Right. And that was $2.5 billion in 2022. That was the congestion in PJM.

David Roberts

Good grief, that's a large number. The grid is getting more complicated, not just because variable renewables are coming online, but also like distributed renewables. So, like distribution grids are going to start becoming producers also. And once you get that level of complexity, then you quickly get way beyond what any one person can intuit, no matter how long they've worked with that grid, right. At that point, you need software.

Julia Selker

Definitely.

David Roberts

So, these are the big three that I always hear discussed when people talk about grid enhancing technologies. Dynamic line ratings, which sort of watch the line and tell operators what's going on around that line in real time and what's going to be going on around that line in the next day or two so that grid operators can increase the throughput of those lines. And there's advanced flow power control which allows you to move power around as it moves through the grid to the least congested areas. And then there's topology optimization, which is sort of optimizing power flow through the grid at a system level, which as we say, is getting increasingly complex and requires software.

These are the big three. Are there other sort of like the category of things that could help the grid work better? Seems pretty capacious. Are there other technologies that sort of qualify or that are around the periphery here? Or is it just those three?

Julia Selker

Yeah, I'm not as much of an expert in the other options, but energy storage can be deployed as a type of power flow control. Basically, if you site your batteries at the substation, they can inject power or consume power strategically in a way that also changes power flow. So that could count. And then other technologies that increase transmission capacity much faster than building new infrastructure: There's reconductoring with high performance conductors and superconductors potentially, tower raising. There are these other technologies, but they don't have that dynamic aspect to them that GETs have, and then GETs are also very low cost.

Very low cost. We'll get into that, I'm sure. But reconductoring a line is a level of capital expenditure and a type of technology that utilities understand and they're ready to use.

David Roberts

Right. Can we just pause to define reconductoring? Is that just literally replacing the line itself, the actual wire itself?

Julia Selker

Yeah, exactly.

David Roberts

With just better wire, better higher capacity wire?

Julia Selker

Yeah, there are a few different types of technology, but a basic way that you would increase capacity would be to use a stronger core in your transmission line. So right now most lines have steel cores and steel, when it heats, gets a lot weaker.

David Roberts

Right.

Julia Selker

If you're using a composite core, then you won't have that sag that the steel would have and it can withstand a lot higher temperatures.

David Roberts

Right. So that gets you somewhat higher capacity with the same sort of towers. But as you say, it's not the kind of dynamic real-time control that sort of characterizes the other GETs. And I think for our purposes we can just sort of slot energy storage under advanced flow power control, since that's basically what you can use storage for in this instance is helping power move around more rationally through the grid.

Julia Selker

Just an aside, we usually say advanced power flow control.

David Roberts

Advanced power flow control. So is APFC the — ?

Julia Selker

Yes.

David Roberts

All right. Advanced power flow control. Yeah, that makes more sense. I don't know why my notes have it backwards. Advanced power flow control, none of these trip off the tongue. So I think the next question, the obvious question is the numbers you cite in terms of increased capacity that you can get out of these things are pretty mind boggling. Like, DLR can get you up to 33% more capacity. Topology optimization reduces congestion costs by 50%. This is the point I want to emphasize most in this pod, is that these are not marginal gains here, necessarily.

Like, you can get big chunks, big amounts of new capacity with these things. So how much do they cost relative to, say, reconductoring, putting new better wire through or building a new line? What's the sort of cost scale here?

Julia Selker

Yes, well, the fun and frustrating thing about GETs is it's hard to generalize. Every deployment will have a different value, different payback period. Some places are windier, sometimes there's a hill in the way, what have you. That's why these ranges will be big. But I have some good examples in terms of costs. For instance, PPL Electric Utilities just won the Edison Electric Institute's Edison Award, the 95th award for their deployment of DLR. They're the first utility to deploy DLR in markets, in operations.

David Roberts

The first US utility to do that.

Julia Selker

Yes.

David Roberts

Wild.

Julia Selker

Yes, in 2023. Whereas Belgium was all over it in 2008. So we're a few —

David Roberts

2008?

Julia Selker

Yes.

David Roberts

So these are not new. Like, DLR, for instance, is not new. Not brand new technology.

Julia Selker

No, it's getting better every year so that there's a benefit there, but we're way past due to bring it into common practice. But PPL's sort of flagship deployment, they had a line that was seeing $23 million of congestion a year, and they could fix it by rebuilding a price tag of $50 million. So that's a little over two years payback. That's not bad for transmission, certainly, but instead used DLR, which cost a quarter million dollars. And so that's a big cost savings. And when you talk about the payback period, it's infinitesimal.

David Roberts

Yeah, no kidding. That's a quarter of $1 million rather than $50 million to build new lines. That's quite a delta.

Julia Selker

Exactly. And so we often talk about net savings. So a deployment of advanced power flow control devices saved $70 million in congestion costs over a three and a half year transmission outage. So that's a net savings. I don't know how much the deployment cost, but $70 million is not chump change for one deployment. And another, widespread deployment of advanced power flow control in the United Kingdom saved half a billion dollars in production cost savings by enabling new renewable energy and then also in avoided investments in new infrastructure. So half a billion dollars for like 50-odd power flow controllers.

David Roberts

That's wild. So huge potential savings here. Relatively cheap to install. One thing I'm a little curious about is what do these physically look like? What is the physical process of installing, say, DLR? How long would it take and how disruptive would it be for a utility to go put DLR on a particular line?

Julia Selker

Yeah, like I said, there are multiple approaches to DLR, so there are some that would require no outage at all. So if you're installing a sensor on your tower that's looking up at your line, or if you're using the fiber optic cable, then you don't have to take an outage and you immediately start getting data about the line temperature and ambient conditions. And then, as I understand, it takes a few weeks for that data to give you the right information for forecasting. But you're in business within months. And the sensors that go on the line, it's not that big of a difference.

I think you do need a short outage to put a sensor on the line, but very short. It takes a couple of hours in a helicopter to install the sensors. So again, you'll be in business in months, and you'll see that 30%, 40% increase. And it also corresponds, of course, to when wind generation is highest. If the wind is cooling your line, then it's also spinning your blades.

David Roberts

Right. And what about advanced power flow controls? I imagine there's a couple of different technologies there, too. But is that how fast or disruptive is a deployment there?

Julia Selker

Yeah, again, we're looking at just months to procure the devices and install them and have them operational. So really fast, I guess, is a short answer.

David Roberts

And same with topology optimization. That's just installing software, or are there physical changes you have to do to do that?

Julia Selker

Yeah, no physical changes. Installing software and then training your staff to use it. Again, really fast.

David Roberts

Which is no small thing. It's a diverse set of technologies. And as you say, every installation will be different since every sort of line is somewhat different, every sort of grid system is different, et cetera. But has anyone modeled sort of the cumulative possibility here, the cumulative effect they could have, say, if, like, every US utility got religion on this and went out and installed GETs on all their systems and all their lines, do we have any idea sort of the cumulative effect that could have?

Julia Selker

Yeah, as you can imagine, they're somewhat complicated to model because we're looking at dynamic conditions. But the Brattle Group back in 2021 did a great study called "Unlocking the Queue." And so they used the Kansas and Oklahoma grids as a little case study, medium sized case study. And they looked at the interconnection queue as it stood. They looked at planned upgrades, they looked at weather snapshots, and then they looked at GETs deployments. So where can we optimally use GETs to increase transmission capacity? And they found that if they didn't install any GETs, the Kansas and Oklahoma grids could sustain 2.6 gigawatts of new wind and solar generation using traditional planning approaches.

And then with GETs, you double that. We would have room for 5.2 gigawatts of new renewable generation without any other grid upgrades.

David Roberts

That's which two states again?

Julia Selker

Kansas and Oklahoma.

David Roberts

Ah, very windy states. So you could install double the clean energy with GETs basically than without is what they found?

Julia Selker

Right. And this was a pretty conservative study. We did not allow any import/export changes. So that really limits the value. And so I feel great about this result. And the total installation of GETs would have cost $90 million. And the production cost savings just from having that cheaper generation available would be $175 million a year. And then there are other benefits, there are jobs, there are lease benefits for the community.

David Roberts

So $90 total to install it, and then $175 million of savings per year from then on.

Julia Selker

Exactly.

David Roberts

And presumably that will filter down to consumers, that will lower costs for consumers at the end of the line. What does it do to reliability? Has that been sort of studied or modeled?

Julia Selker

Yeah, that's a little harder to quantify, but we have some ideas for sure. Basically, if you can see how your system is performing and you have options for how to respond to changes, that is a net improvement on reliability. Right? You have awareness, you have flexibility, and you can improve your resilience and reliability. And then also I mentioned case studies of advanced power flow control, saving money during an outage. Topology optimization has also been demonstrated to, for instance, save $40 million over a nine month outage. So when you're dealing with contingencies and outages, these tools can help you do that at lower cost and with more optionality.

David Roberts

All right, so this brings us then to this $61 million question, or whatever the term is, the big question, which is if we have in the US right now huge problems with grid congestion that is blocking the buildout of clean energy that we all say we want and that in fact, we're plowing tens of billions of dollars into. And there's a solution on the table that gets us considerably more transmission capacity quickly at relatively low cost compared to building more transmission: What the hell? Why aren't utilities, why aren't RTOs and ISOs, why aren't states and state legislatures, why isn't everyone beating down the door to put these on?

It just seems like an interim solution that takes the pressure off of all our current problems relatively cheaply. So what am I missing here? Why is there resistance? Why are there not laws mandating these things? Why are utilities resisting at all? Let's start with utilities. Why aren't utilities doing more of this?

Julia Selker

Well, very big question, and I'll start by saying you're doing your part because one of the big barriers is just awareness that planners and utility executives and regulators and stakeholders don't know that these technologies are available. They don't understand the benefits. And so I'm out here trying to tell the story and share examples and that's an issue and just general inertia.

David Roberts

I mean it's kind of their business to know these things, isn't it? I have limited sympathy for that. But okay, so they're not aware. I guess here's what I'm obliquely getting at which regular Volts listeners will roll their eyes as I harp on this all the time but I'm not telling you anything. The basic utility model is they make money by spending money. They make money by deploying large physical assets and getting a guaranteed rate of return on them. So if you're telling them "We can with something that is super cheap and doesn't involve deploying much money, get you more capacity out of what you already have and avoid the need for you to deploy a bunch of big physical infrastructure," basically you're telling them you're going to reduce their profits.

It's pretty straightforward. It's the same story behind energy efficiency and distributed energy and everything else. Anything that reduces the need for utilities to spend money and deploy physical infrastructure is going to be resisted by utilities. I'm just assuming that's one of the dynamics at work here.

Julia Selker

Yeah. I want to be a little nicer to the utilities and say these aren't going to make them money. They're going to have to do like you said, this is a really small capital expenditure and it's a change in their operations and processes so, right: It's not a money-making opportunity. I think, and I've been working on GETs since 2019 that there's been a shift that utilities realize they're going to have the opportunity to build as much transmission as ratepayers will pay for. Right. This is a transmission building era.

David Roberts

Right. Not like there's going to be a shortage of demand. Even if you deploy GETs, it's still going to be building as much transmission as you can.

Julia Selker

Right. A lot of our grid was built 70 years ago. It's time to replace things. We need large interregional transmission. There's going to be a lot of transmission built. So I believe and hope that utilities are seeing that they need to be showing that they're maximizing their infrastructure. That said, they can't be blamed for doing things the same way as they have for decades. So they're going to be risk averse. They have this lower returns on lower capital expenditures and historically they're only responsible for reliability planning. They're only responsible for building transmission to deal with reliability issues.

And that goes back to the history of thermal generation, when that was all we needed to get a good system. But, in the future, we need to plan for reliability and clean energy integration and customer cost savings. Because at the end of the day, the utilities need to demonstrate to FERC that their rates are just and reasonable and economic transmission planning is going to be a part of that.

David Roberts

You know you say, "You can't blame utilities." Maybe you can't, I can blame them a little bit. But how could they be induced to do it? Because in one obvious way is they're under legal obligation to have just and reasonable rates. And I think if you're a ratepayer advocate or a state regulator, you could reasonably say: "It is not just and reasonable to ignore giant cost saving, reliability boosting opportunities, that it's both unjust and unreasonable. So therefore, you have to do it." Are people trying to do that through rate cases?

Julia Selker

FERC is working on that. FERC is looking at a few different models for grid enhancing technologies. So, one big-picture way to think about it is requirements versus incentives. And they're both a little bit tricky when it comes to grid enhancing technologies. So for requirements, one model that FERC is thinking about is a threshold where if you have a certain amount of congestion every year on your line, then you have to look at dynamic line ratings. And that's good. It's simple and clear, but there are still loopholes when it comes to a requirement. There's no transparency, really around transmission constraints.

So if a utility comes back and says, "Well, actually, there's some other limiting element. So dynamic line ratings don't help." We're not sure that a requirement will be the most effective model, but it would lead to more deployments in certain cases. So that's one good approach. And the other is an incentive which would drive the utility — say it was based on congestion cost savings. It would drive the utility to look for those most congestive lines and try to solve a problem with really low cost solutions if they were getting compensated based on the net savings, for instance.

David Roberts

Right. I mean, those make sense to me, although I'll just register one last time, and then I'll let it go. It's a little crazy that you have to bully or force or beg or incent utilities to do cheap things that could save a crapload of money. This is like, we come around to this in the clean energy world again and again and again. Why are we begging utilities to do these things? It's insane that their incentive is not to have the best service at the cheapest possible rate. Like, it's insane that they have to be brow beaten to do these things.

Julia Selker

Well, I mentioned that Belgium is really far ahead on dynamic line ratings. And in 2021, someone from the Belgian transmission system operator testified to FERC, and he said that ten years ago, when they were installing dynamic line ratings, the utility engineers were resistant. I think he said they looked at him like he was crazy, but that now whenever they run into congestion, they immediately go to dynamic line ratings. So as much as we want a fast and transformative transition, these things take time. But I feel like we're going to follow in Belgium's bold footsteps.

David Roberts

Well, what about PUCs? What about state regulators? Like, presumably they could be made aware of these things and they could push are they doing so?

Julia Selker

Yes, the Joint Federal State Task Force on Electric Transmission, which is a group of ten PUC commissioners from around the country, and then also FERC commissioners, met in July and discussed grid enhancing technologies. That was their agenda for two and a half hours. It was a really great discussion, lots of great ideas from state commissioners in terms of how GETs should be deployed, the barriers, etc. So that was super promising. And then they can take various actions. So for one thing, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act came with $14 billion of formula and competitive grants from the DOE that grid enhancing technologies would be eligible for.

So for the formula grants, every state is allocated a certain amount of money and they can propose projects and a use for that money. And then the DOE sends them that money. And then, for the competitive grants, states and utilities and nonprofit utilities, for profit utilities, there's different grants for different entities. But they can again propose a grid enhancing technology deployment and have it — many of the programs have a 50% cost match, for instance, and that could include that workforce training that I talked about. So these are really low cost devices. Obviously, maybe the 50% cost share isn't huge there, but if you're doing that first deployment and you have to update your systems and you have to train your staff, then maybe that cost share is more meaningful.

And certainly for nonprofit utilities that are on shoestring or relatively shoestring budgets, that sort of savings should be really significant.

David Roberts

So that's $14 billion in the Infrastructure Act, not specifically for grid enhancing technologies, but for which grid enhancing technologies are eligible.

Julia Selker

Right. And if you generalize that Brattle study that I talked about, with the $90 million of GETs deployment roughly over the country, we would expect $2.7 billion to deploy GETs optimally over the whole network. So we don't need $14 billion, but we're not going to get it also.

David Roberts

Yeah, I know this is the crazy thing. It's so cheap that dumping money on it is almost beside the point. Like it's so cheap already that whatever the problem is, it's not money. Right? It's not money being available. Are there other federal programs in place that are attempting to juice GETs along? Like, I know the DOE has a gajillion different grant programs and I know the Loan Programs Office is getting involved in nascent technologies and there's all these different programs. Are there other pieces of federal policy that are aimed at this?

Julia Selker

I want to say no, but I could be forgetting something. I will say that there are national lab groups working on grid enhancing technologies in different ways. There's a sort of separate funding for demonstration projects, for instance, for utilities. So again, sort of targeted at deploying your first project because that's the expensive one, that's the hard one, and then the ball is rolling.

David Roberts

So grants in the Infrastructure Act. And then there's this meeting of PUC commissioners that are getting behind it. What about FERC? You mentioned FERC is doing some things — FERC, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, for those who don't know that by now — what's FERC doing on this? It seems like it ought to have a key role here.

Julia Selker

Yeah. So two recent FERC orders included GETs so order 881, which was about managing transmission line ratings, required utilities to use the ambient adjusted ratings and then for RTOs to prepare their systems to accept dynamic line ratings. And some RTOs already can. For instance, PJM is set up based on that PPL deployment I talked about. But all the RTOs have to be able to accept DLR by 2025. So that's a good start.

David Roberts

In what way are they not currently ready? What does that mean to get ready? Like if you're just going to go clip a LiDAR onto your transmission tower, what does it mean to get ready for that?

Julia Selker

Well, you have to be able to accept forecasted line ratings, and those will change. So when the RTO is deciding which generators are going to be dispatched and they are going to use the dynamic forecasted line rating to do that, that's a change.

David Roberts

Right. So, it could change their planning, their sort of integrated planning, do you think?

That's an operational change, I would say, in terms of how they're dispatching generation. And you could talk to people who will make it sound really hard. I hope it's not as hard as some people make it sound, but I think it's doable, especially by July 2025.

And that's FERC 881. You said there was another one.

Julia Selker

Yeah. So, Order 2023, which was about interconnection, requires the evaluation of alternative transmission technologies in interconnection processes. It leaves a lot of discretion currently to the transmission owners in terms of how they're used. And we've seen other processes in the US that leave a lot of discretion to the transmission owners. And that means you get uneven results.

David Roberts

Yeah, I was going to say, I was reading your reports and it sounds like in a lot of cases, like the case was presented to the transmission owner with all the information you've told me. Seems like an obvious no regrets, easy win. And then they just don't do it and don't explain why. That's sort of one of the things that was mysterious to me. Is that just inertia? Is that just habit? I mean, they don't explain. So you obviously can't answer that question. But it is mysterious.

Julia Selker

Yeah. I mean, one example that I have from a renewable energy developer is that there was a 1% line overload identified in the interconnection study between RTO seams. And as we talked about, DLR is going to fix a 1% line overload almost all the time. Just because the static rating is so conservative. It doesn't have to be a very windy place. So the upgrade that was identified in this case was $400 million to fix that 1% overload and the TO refused to consider DLR.

David Roberts

It's just wild. As opposed to like a buck fifty. Yeah, I really don't get that. I guess the positive story you could tell is just habit and culture and that that will change over time as these things starting to get deployed and are more familiar. Is there something obvious that you would like FERC to do that it's not doing?

Julia Selker

Oh, yeah, I've got a list.

David Roberts

Everybody's got their FERC list?

Julia Selker

Oh, yeah, wish list. So they've got their notice of proposed rulemaking on transmission planning. We hope they go a little further than they went in the Interconnection rule in terms of requiring the use of GETs in transmission planning. They have the threshold requirement that I was talking about for requiring the study and implementation of dynamic line ratings, for instance, if there's a certain amount of congestion on a line. And then incentives: FERC was tasked by Congress, I think, about 20 years ago to create electric transmission incentives policy for transmission technologies, and FERC did a workshop about performance based rate making approaches that's that, for instance, cost savings, utilities getting compensated based on the savings they enable.

Yes, but that hasn't moved much since 2021. And then also transparency because grid users and stakeholders don't have the information that we would need to understand what the potential is. SPP gave a lot of information to the Brattle Group to undertake that study I talked about. But generally, if you ask PJM how many lines see $2 million of congestion a year, they might tell you that, but they might not have on hand what's causing that congestion. So this transparency question is big. And FERC started getting into that with transmission planning and cost management work with the Joint Task Force.

They had a technical conference where they brought up the idea of a transmission monitor. So that's also interesting to us.

David Roberts

Is there a role here for sort of just the public, just advocates? All of this seems kind of technical and it's all being sort of hashed out by these technical bodies and these working groups and federal agencies. Is there any role here for sort of just public advocacy for the public to get involved?

Julia Selker

Yeah, why not? There are some legislators who've proposed, like federal legislators, who proposed legislation around grid enhancing technologies. So Senator Martin Heinrich has legislation to include GETs in a transmission tax credit. Representative Kathy Castor has a bill on including GETs in interconnection. There's been some movement since that was introduced, but there's federal legislation that can be pushed for. And also, the Federal Congress oversees FERC to some degree and has conversations with them. So your Congressperson can always push FERC to act on these issues. Leader Schumer wrote a letter to Chair Phillips at FERC in late July asking him to move on the GETs proceedings.

So pressure on legislators is good. And let the public utility commissions know that you're looking for more efficient use of the existing transmission infrastructure as well. And state policymakers, too. State legislators, they can all call on the utilities to embrace these tools. And part of the barrier, not the most significant barrier, but part of the barrier is that utilities don't want questions about why they're using this new technology. So if they're getting their state regulators and legislators telling them to use these technologies, that's one less thing for them to worry about.

David Roberts

Yeah, this does seem like one of the areas of policy where states are a little more movable and good things might get going in states and then work their way up to the federal level. That's sort of been the path of most good policy, energy policy in the last decade or so. Final question. You say these things have been around for a while, they're getting better, but they've been around for a while. Who in the U.S., if anyone, is actually using them? And then part two of the question is who in the world is using them?

Where are these things actually in use?

Julia Selker

Yeah, so GETs have been piloted by dozens of utilities in the United States.

David Roberts

Love their pilots.

Julia Selker

Yeah, that's the good news. I mean, since the late 90s, dynamic line ratings story goes way back. So they're out there, like I said, the first operational use of DLR just recently. But even power flow control, for instance, has been used. There's this great story a transmission engineer told me about. They were going to have to interconnect a generator. They were going to have to rebuild a line in case of an outage. You have to plan for N minus one, like something going out contingency. So they were going to have to rebuild a line for that.

Instead, they were able to install a power flow controller and the power flow controller was never used. That contingency never happened. But just by putting in this device, you didn't have to do this whole big rebuild. That would not have given that benefit. So that's an example.

David Roberts

I saw on your map that Europe is covered in these things.

Julia Selker

Yeah, lots of dynamic line ratings in Eastern Europe, for sure. Southern, Eastern Europe, Belgium, the UK. So in the UK, National Grid has an incentive regulation that a) gives them funding for innovation: So if they're using a new technology, there's that initial support. And then they also have incentives for saving money through innovation. So when they install those advanced power flow controllers that create half a billion dollars in savings, they're getting compensated for that in a way that when the National Grid US does it, they don't get compensated directly like that. But it's great that National Grid US and UK have some knowledge sharing and National Grid US is one of the more ambitious utilities in terms of GETs, I think partially because of that.

David Roberts

Well, this is all super interesting. Julia, I just think it's so important for people in this world, in the energy world, to know that transmission is a bear. It's a difficult problem. It's the difficult problem. But we're not just stuck waiting for new lines to get built, right? We're not just stuck waiting for these interminably slow processes to go forward. There's tons of stuff we can do now with these existing technologies to move things forward, reduce costs, get more clean energy on the grid, et cetera, et cetera. It's available now. And so people, when they're pounding the table about transmission, they should add this to their arsenal.

You can act now. There is something to do now about all this. So thank you for coming and sharing the good news with us.

Julia Selker

Thanks so much. And yeah, we're just sitting on all this dormant capacity that's untapped, right? So once we start using these technologies, suddenly we open up these lines and these circuits to carry so much more for us. And then when we're planning the future grid, we can consider these technologies too, and make sure that we're building the line that's the most useful to the system, because we have all this other flexibility and extra capacity. So we shouldn't be making planning decisions based on the assumption that the grid is a static asset.

David Roberts

Yes!

Julia Selker

Certainly, so, yeah, really exciting technologies. Thanks for having me.

David Roberts

Thank you for listening to the Volts podcast. It is ad-free, powered entirely by listeners like you. If you value conversations like this, please consider becoming a paid Volts subscriber at Volts.wtf. Yes, that's Volts.wtf so that I can continue doing this work. Thank you so much. And I'll see you next time.

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Volts is a podcast about leaving fossil fuels behind. I've been reporting on and explaining clean-energy topics for almost 20 years, and I love talking to politicians, analysts, innovators, and activists about the latest progress in the world's most important fight. (Volts is entirely subscriber-supported. Sign up!)