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One easy way to boost the grid: upgrade the power lines
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One easy way to boost the grid: upgrade the power lines

A conversation with Jason Huang of TS Conductor and Emilia Chojkiewicz of UC Berkeley.
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Upgrading power lines — “reconductoring,” in the biz — is a straightforward way to boost the capacity of the electrical grid by enabling it to transmit more power and leak less of it. In this episode, TS Conductor CEO Jason Huang and researcher Emilia Chojkiewicz speak to the great potential of reconductoring, if balky utilities can be convinced to deploy the new technology.

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David Roberts

In a free market economy, companies are under constant pressure to improve their products; if they don't, competitors come along and undercut or outperform them.

As Volts listeners are aware by now, power utilities do not operate in a free market environment. They are monopolies, shielded from competition by governments that guarantee their financial returns.

Utilities are not under constant pressure to improve their products, and consequently, power lines haven't improved much over the years. The standard design used in the industry dates back to the early 1900s. The more “modern” design dates back to the 1970s.

Now, at long last, some companies are popping up with new power lines that can transmit more power, and leak less of it, than traditional lines. Simply replacing old lines (or “conductors”) with the latest technology — or “reconductoring” — could, according to some recent studies, double the capacity of the existing grid, or more. But that would involve persuading utilities to actually deploy the latest tech, which is no mean feat.

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To discuss all this I've invited two guests. Jason Huang is the CEO of TS Conductor, which makes a new conductor that replaces the steel core of traditional lines with carbon fiber. Emilia Chojkiewicz is a research affiliate at UC Berkeley and co-author of a recent study on the large-scale potential of reconductoring.

So, with no further ado, Jason and Emilia, welcome to the pod. Thank you so much for coming.

Jason Huang

Thank you, David, for the opportunity.

Emilia Chojkiewicz

Yes, thank you so much.

David Roberts

Okay, so, Jason, I'm going to start with you. I think I, like most people I know, have not given a ton of thought to power lines. It never really occurred to me to think about how they're made. So maybe let's just start with, explain to people who know nothing about this what the traditional design is, what the traditional way of making power lines is, and how long that's been around.

Jason Huang

Yes. When you think about moving the electron from where it's generated to where it's consumed, we have to have the power lines. That is how the electrons are delivered. And when you think about the conductor, there is the conducting elements, which is normally a metal, as well as a strength member that allows the conductor to hang between the towers. You need the strength, you also need to have the ability to manage the sagging as well — just to point out some of the necessary attributes. The story of conductors over the past 100 years is actually a story of material science and the evolution of material science. Back in the early 20th century when ACSR conductor was developed — by the way, ACSR is still the dominant technology today in our power grid, I should say.

David Roberts

ACSR is "aluminium conductor steel-reinforced".

Jason Huang

That is correct.

David Roberts

So does that mean aluminum is the metal that is doing the conducting and steel is what's providing the strength?

Jason Huang

Yes, you got that right. And when we had ACSR developed in 1908, the steel at the time is called high strength steel. It is not quite high-strength enough. So we had to leverage the strengths from hard aluminum. Hard aluminum versus annealed aluminum. There's a difference. Hard aluminum gives you very high strength, but you do not have the temperature capability. That is, if you go above 93 degrees centigrade, the hard aluminum starts to permanently anneal and it basically loses strength. Hard aluminum does not have the best electrical conductivity either. So it's a compromise that we're using hard aluminum with so-called high strength steel back in 1908.

David Roberts

Then along comes ACSS, which is aluminum conductor, steel-supported. What is the relevant difference there? Does that matter to us?

Jason Huang

Yes, it does, because the better aluminum, by the way, it is the annealed aluminum. It has the best electrical conductivity at 63% of copper conductivity. And it is also capable of going to very high temperature without worrying about losing strength, provided that we have a better strength member. And this happened when the steel industry was able to deliver stronger steel. And that's how ACSS was developed about 50 years ago. So, you basically are now combining the stronger steel with the annealed aluminum that has better electrical conductivity and supports high temperature. Now you have a conductor. When you run them hot, you get extraordinary capacity, and that's called high temperature, low sag conductor.

And the ACSS is not necessarily as low sag, by the way, so you can go to high temperature for the additional capacity. ACSS, by the way, it is the baseline technology for reconductoring in our industry today. It's been around for 50 years and it has some serious handicap. Why? Because we are still featuring the steel inside. And when you think about steel, one is they're heavy. The other attribute is the steel material has a high thermal expansion. So why does thermal expansion matter? Well, when the material stretches because of the thermal expansion, you're going to have sag.

David Roberts

Right. This is a notorious problem, that when the lines are conducting a lot of electricity, they get hot, and as they get hot, the materials expand and the lines sag down. I'm sure people have seen this, they sag down lower, and lower. And of course, when you get sag, you also run the risk of brushing up against trees or other obstacles or starting fires. Sag is a big problem in the industry.

Jason Huang

Right. So what you had to do, if you are doing reconductoring — by the way, reconductoring simply means you are leveraging these structures in the existing rights of way — but with ACSS conductor, that excessive sag makes the tower inadequate in terms of clearance. So you actually had to raise the tower height so that you are able to guarantee the clearance above a building, above a highway. That structural retrofit makes the project expensive.

David Roberts

Got it. And so what we're still doing, basically, is aluminum wrapped in steel. Your line, from what I can tell, basically replaces some or all of the steel with carbon fiber. Is that correct?

Jason Huang

Yes. What we are doing is we substitute the heavy, the highly thermal sagging steel out with a carbon fiber composite core that is lighter, which is 20% of the weight of steel. And it is twice the strength of steel as well. But more importantly, it has a thermal expansion that's virtually zero. Basically, you do not have to worry about sagging when you are running the conductor hot.

David Roberts

So carbon fiber does not expand when heated.

Jason Huang

Actually, carbon fiber is one of the two known substances — it actually shrinks when you go up in temperature. No other material behaves that way. One of them is ice turning into water. You actually have a volume shrinkage. Right. The other substance that shrinks when you go to higher temperature is carbon fiber. So when you make a composite with carbon fiber, the net composite has virtually no thermal expansion, unlike any of the other materials that we are familiar with.

David Roberts

But is the carbon fiber still wrapped around aluminum? Is it still aluminum doing the actual conducting?

Jason Huang

Yes, the aluminum is still the carrier of the electron.

David Roberts

Right.

Jason Huang

The carbon fiber composite is simply substituting the steel to provide strength, to control for the sagging, and also to keep the weight to a minimum.

David Roberts

So, your company boasts all kinds of things about this line that's an improvement over existing lines. One is you say it reduces line losses. I think most people are familiar with the idea that when you transmit electricity over long distances, some of it leaks, basically leaks out. And you say you reduce that. How is that, why is that?

Jason Huang

Yeah. When you use carbon fiber composite now, you have that weight-saving aspect by getting the steel out. What we do is we actually pack more aluminum than any other conductor for two reasons: One is we are able to leverage the weight saving from steel to allow aluminum to be maximized into the conductor without the weight penalty. And the carbon fiber composite core is so strong that you oftentimes can go to a smaller core compared to the steel wires in the past. Now you have more space to pack in the aluminum in addition to substituting the round aluminum strand with trapezoidal strand, which is a closer packing when you combine them together into a conductor.

And that's how you get the lower resistance, which is a lower loss, simply by packing the most amount of aluminum. And it's also the most conductive type of aluminum to make that work.

David Roberts

Got it. So you take the weight you saved and use a little bit, get a little bit of that back just by packing in more aluminum. And that's why you conduct more electricity. It's pretty simple.

Jason Huang

Yes, and that's one aspect, David. The other aspect is we also talked about the TS conductor, for example, has very low sag. And you can leverage that low sag characteristic that you are able to put in a larger conductor compared to the conventional conductor, yet without the triggering of having to retrofit the structure, making them taller or stronger. Now you have the ability to put a larger conductor in lieu of the old traditional conductor. Now you can push to as much as three times the capacity of the old conductor without having to do any retrofitting on these structures in the existing rights of way.

David Roberts

Yeah, that's kind of the magic key here, is that these lines you make can just be strung in the same towers, the same infrastructure that we're using the old lines, using the same basic, as far as I can discern, the same basic techniques. Right. You don't have to retrain your workforce on anything new. They'll be familiar with how to do this. This line is very familiar to line workers, from what I can tell.

Jason Huang

Yes, that is actually a very important aspect, because whenever you have a new technology introduced to an industry, especially a very conservative industry — you made a point about utilities are by design monopolies. They do not have to innovate or compete the way a private industry does, right. So you have to make the job easy for the line crew who has experience and the familiarity with traditional conductor. And your conductor better be as robust. Your conductor better is compatible with conventional way of doing installations like same tool, same methodology, same everything. You would make that technology adoption that much easier.

And that's what we have done with TS conductor.

David Roberts

Before we move on from line losses, though, can you just give us a sense of what standard line losses are versus using your conductor? Like, what are the scales here?

Jason Huang

Yeah, there is a study done by Department of Energy. This is actually dated data, but it's still relevant? It was published in 2014. It estimated the line loss globally at about 8.5% on average.

David Roberts

And is that just transmission or transmission and distribution?

Jason Huang

It's combining transmission and distribution.

David Roberts

Got it.

Jason Huang

And normally there's higher loss in the distribution circuit versus the transmission circuit.

David Roberts

So 8% is the average. And what's the line loss on yours?

Jason Huang

We can reduce the line loss by as much as half. And this is actually quite significant, David, because we believe as a company in the need for energy transition with affordability and with a sense of urgency. We do not have unlimited time to take care of energy transition to fight climate change. And we also believe in the need for affordability, because all these trillions that we have to invest, imagine the impact to the rate payers. So, you think about transmission line. In the US, only 5% of the budget typically goes to conductor. As much as 30% of the cost on the project is on structures.

So what does it mean if you do reconductoring, you are only spending a fraction of the cost of building a new line. And you have the potential to double or even triple the line capacity. And if you do new lines, if you are able to leverage technology like TS to facilitate fewer, shorter and lighter structures, you can save far more from the structure aspect to pay for the modest premium that allows you to have a green discount on the project cost level. And that's how you drive affordability.

David Roberts

Right. So I just want to clarify this in case anybody didn't get it. So for a new project, you're paying more for this kind of conductor. That I think is clear. If you're using carbon fiber rather than steel, it's a little bit of a CapEx premium up front.

Jason Huang

And David, we pack far more aluminum there. There's a cost to that as well.

David Roberts

Right, right, right. So the line itself costs more, but you say for new projects you can do lower and lighter towers. So you save more on the towers than you spend extra on the lines, basically, for a new project.

Actually the bigger saving is in fewer towers because —

Jason Huang

Fewer towers.

David Roberts

Yeah, fewer, shorter and lighter. The fewer is actually most significant, because when you think about towers, it's not just the steels that you have to assemble. There is also the foundation. You have to dig the foundation and all that cost. Adding up a tower for 345 kV line, according to MISO's number, it's almost $300,000.

Good grief.

Jason Huang

And if you save two towers in a mile, that's more than enough to pay for consumable costs on the conductor associated expense.

David Roberts

Right. What about on reconductoring? So if I'm a utility and I'm pondering reconductoring in a particular corridor, you come to me and say, "hey, use my more expensive line, rather than the line you're used to." What's your business case? How do they make that money back on the reconductoring project?

Jason Huang

Oh, they will be able to make that money back in many ways. Number one, you are comparing TS option versus the other alternative. The other alternatives are new lines. It's going to be far more expensive. It's going to take many more years to complete. I have a simple math there. The new line could cost 10 to 20 x compared to reconductoring. It could take 10 to 20 years versus 10 to 20 months max for reconductoring. And if you compare TS against alternative reconductoring, ACSS we mentioned about, it's going to require structural retrofit to make each tower taller. That's where the cost comes in.

David Roberts

And ACSS, as you mentioned before, that's what utilities are typically using for reconductoring projects today. So when they do reconductoring projects today, they typically do structural retrofits of the towers?

Jason Huang

Yes, sometimes. I'll give you an example. Our first customer is Montana-Dakota Utility, and the line has been energized since March 2021. They were using ACSS to do reconductoring for a segment. It's a 230 kV line to facilitate renewable — it's actually a wind farm connection — to their grid. They were retrofitting and replacing 90% of the structures when TS Conductor was used they avoided all of that. We were told by MDU that we saved them 40% in total project CapEx. That's really where the CapEx saving comes in, if you can avoid structure-related cost.

David Roberts

Got it. A couple more questions about the line, because one thing I noticed in one of the presentations, or the literature, I forget where I started, but you mentioned that your lines enable real-time monitoring of — Volts listeners are very familiar with this, the need for better real-time monitoring of what's happening on these lines so that utilities can sort of maximize their throughput. So how is that? And beyond that, also, I'm curious whether because you've saved so much weight by shifting from steel to carbon, are there other things you could put in the core alongside the aluminum?

I think like you mentioned fiber optic cable once. So I guess what I'm asking is, what does your line do for smart features? How do you enable more monitoring with your line?

Jason Huang

Yeah. Without divulging too much information here, David, let me give you kind of an overview. In society, in our lives, a lot of things are becoming smarter. But in the transmission lines, we're still dealing with century-old technology, and the wires have always been kind of just dumb wires. There's no reason why the conductors that we're using for the power grid shouldn't be smart. So the way that we address it is by integrating a sensing optical fiber. What does the optical fiber do? It allows you to monitor line temperature in a very precise, fashion, distributed way. So you basically are able to know the temperature on the wire, on the conductor from the control room in the future.

And the length of the optical fiber is actually the conductor length. That's the precise information you need to know the conductor sagging. So if you know the temperature, there is a temperature limit for any conductor that limits your capacity. And you also know the sagging, which is the other constraint that you have to stay within limits, that allows you to do dynamic line rating. And by the way, you can do it without any assumptions and have that information real-time at all times from the control room. We are working with DOE, by the way. We hope to have this technology commercial in about two to three years, and we'll be doing a validation with Oak Ridge National Lab in their rig.

David Roberts

You mean adding the fiber?

Jason Huang

Adding the fiber and have these functionalities we just talked about: monitoring real-time sagging, monitoring the real-time conductor temperature, and have the information available in the control room.

David Roberts

Interesting. And if you have fiber in there, could you do other things with the fiber? Like could you distribute the Internet with the fiber? Having a fiber connection is handy for a lot of reasons.

Jason Huang

Yeah, there are other ways you can do datacom, like you were suggesting, for example, OPGW (Optical Ground Wire), that sits on top of the transmission towers. There are plenty of optical fibers there for datacom. So we're only looking at adding one or two optical fibers in the conductor itself. And we can certainly add optical fiber for distribution use, that you use it for data and also for electron delivery, right — because the conductor can do both. But back to the question about what else can you do with that optical fiber? Now, you actually have a way to monitor extreme weather as well.

David Roberts

Right.

Jason Huang

So if I have heavy ice or an ice storm, you will know where the ice is building in my circuit. And if you have a strong wind blowing at it, you will know where and how severe is the wind. If I have wildfires that we have to deal with — by the way, you will be able to monitor the temperature — that means you actually know from the control room where is the wildfire, how close is it to a specific circuit? And you can do pointed targeted outage instead of the forced PSPS (Public Safety Power Shutoffs) that we have to live with from time to time.

David Roberts

Right. That would be nice to be a little bit more precise about those things. All of this makes the most sense to me in the context of transmission: the extra cost, making back the extra cost, all that stuff makes total sense in transmission. I'm wondering, can your lines with the carbon fiber be used in distribution systems? Are they being used in distribution systems? I guess intuitively, I think it sounds like they're kind of over-engineered and too expensive to use for distribution purposes. But is that wrong?

Jason Huang

I'm glad that you asked that question. TS technology was first deployed in a distribution circuit. Why? Because the distribution circuit is actually more challenging for advanced conductor. The reason being the crew that are working in the distribution circuit are the new guys. They're normally less skilled, more prone to make mistakes. You better have a product that is very robust, that is mistake tolerant, that is TS conductor. And by the way, distribution circuit normally has a higher loading; it means it's got a much higher loss. And if you are able to drive the loss lower in distribution — and a lot of the co-ops and public utilities, they have a lot of the distribution circuits, and they care about line loss because they buy power.

David Roberts

Right.

Jason Huang

If they have less loss in their system, they buy less power and basically it will be less cost to their system. So this is a conductor. When we say TS, one of the meanings is: technology plus safety. Safety is one of the core features of TS technology. We use this aluminum encapsulation to guarantee safety, reliability, longevity, because they're designed into the product with that protection. And the other part of the TS means it's a total solution. It is compatible with transmission lines as well as distribution, and it works well in reconductoring, and it is also competitive in new transmission lines.

So it is not a niche product. It is a mainstream solution that our industry needs.

David Roberts

And for a distribution product, you can sort of sell the utility the same financial logic, which is these lines cost a little bit more than traditional distribution lines, but you will make your money back. Basically, that's the pitch on the distribution side as well?

Jason Huang

Yes. We actually have a business model with Lotus Infrastructure Partners. They provide financing to TS related projects. And basically the joint venture we have with Starwood Energy Group — it's now called Lotus Infrastructure Partners — we can do the project for you at no cost to the utility. And it is obviously foreign to our business model in the utility business; we basically wanted to tap into the economic value we create, such as line loss saving. Let's say for ten years: we will make our money back from the economic value we create above and beyond the baseline, at no cost to the ratepayer, to the utility.

David Roberts

Oh, so this is a little bit like this kind of the solar lease model, the no money up front. The utility pays you no money up front, and you just make your money back from the savings over time.

Jason Huang

Imagine you do the reconductoring, right? Reconductoring, you are working on the wires. It's 5% of the total project cost. Now, you keep that cost up front to a minimum. The line loss saving alone is significant, especially when you have a heavily loaded line, let's say, in a distribution circuit, and its distribution is normally less risky, less complicated. We can help utilities who need this type of model, or who are interested to make it work.

David Roberts

Interesting. Okay, so we have better conductors here that are going to reduce losses, save money, reduce infrastructure costs through the towers, and everything seems like here we are yet again in the Volts podcast: it seems like something that utilities ought to be lining up to do, and yet... So, Emilia, let's bring you in here. So you looked into the potential for reconductoring sort of on a broad scale, and sort of the first thing you found is that most grid modeling, most sort of grid planning does not take into account the possibility of reconductoring. Obviously, one reason more utilities aren't doing it is that they don't seem to be aware that it exists or are not modeling it, or not using it in their plans.

Let's just start there. Why is that? Why aren't they?

Emilia Chojkiewicz

Yeah, exactly, David. So, basically, if we think about the historical context, right, the only tool in the toolbox for expanding transmission capacity was building new lines. But then, especially over the last two decades or so, this has really changed. We have these advanced conductors, and we have a whole plethora of different grid enhancing technologies that can increase the capacity or enhance the efficiency of our grid. But you're right, in the US, we haven't really incorporated these tools into our toolboxes, and that's really what our study was focused on. We wanted to incorporate it into our toolboxes by incorporating it into power system modeling.

David Roberts

Is there a reason why, other than just the very standard reason, that utilities are conservative and don't do exciting new things?

Emilia Chojkiewicz

So you're right. There's, I think, three primary reasons why utilities aren't really doing it. One, what you mentioned is the lack of awareness. So utilities have been a very conservative industry and they've prioritized reliability of power delivery over, say, innovation. The second is lack of experience. So it's a persisting perception that this is really a niche solution, for example, for long river crossings, or that it would actually be very difficult to reconductor the most heavily congested lines — that could actually also benefit the most from reconductoring. But we found real world case studies that disprove this. For example, they performed energized reconductoring on transmission lines before.

And the third is really the lack of incentive. Of course, rate of return regulation and a bias for high CapEx investments have just discouraged it.

David Roberts

Yeah, I figured we'd find that down here somewhere. Once again, we come to a place where if you go to utilities and say, "hey, I've got a solution where you could get the same outcome but spend less money," in any other business context that would be great. But in utilities, with utilities, they make money depending on how much money they spend. So spending less money is not exactly always an inducement to utilities. But another thing to emphasize here before we talk about the modeling is this is not, as you say, a theoretical exercise like this is being done.

You have all sorts of case studies where this is being done in the world. Like people are out there doing this and we have empirical results from actual field tests, right?

Emilia Chojkiewicz

Exactly. So I used to work in Europe. And for example, Belgium, the Netherlands, they're reconductoring nearly their entire high voltage networks because they have exactly the same problems as us. They need to integrate renewables. It's very difficult to acquire new right of way, and they're working with very constrained timelines. So they're turning to reconductoring with advanced conductors because they see that there's really no other alternative.

David Roberts

Right. And so what you did, basically, is take a power system model off the shelf and just introduce reconductoring into it as an option. You allowed the model to choose reconductoring in the appropriate circumstances. So what did you find? What did the model tell you?

Emilia Chojkiewicz

First, let me give you a bit of the big picture, because I think it's important to understand the context. We really got into this work a little over a year ago, right after the Inflation Reduction Act was passed, and we really saw the cost of renewables, wind, solar, batteries just coming down significantly with the IRA giving very generous incentives as well. But of course, that low cost renewables, we can't leverage them if we don't increase our transmission capacity. And so when we started looking into options for increasing transmission capacity, rapidly advanced composite core conductors came right up.

And so we started exploring this. We found that reconductoring often bypasses the permitting that slows down the development of new lines. Just for reference, new greenfield high voltage transmission lines often take 10 to 15 years to plan, permit and build in the US.

David Roberts

And that's the optimistic — that's assuming they happen at all. Optimistic case.

Emilia Chojkiewicz

Exactly. And if we're aiming for 100% clean electricity by 2035, we don't have that kind of time.

David Roberts

Yes.

Emilia Chojkiewicz

So this reconductoring opportunity really excited us because it seemed that there was really just a huge viable opportunity. In theory, you could probably reconductor every line in the country. I mean, you might not want to, but in theory it's possible. So we really just saw this huge untapped opportunity that we wanted to investigate, because no other study had investigated it before. So what we did, we first looked at the technical details. So how much transmission capacity could reconductoring offer? What are the limiting factors on existing transmission lines? Reconductoring really pertains to the thermal limits of operation, but we also have certain voltage and stability considerations that we need to consider in the grid.

So we explored all of that. We also explored costs. So we built up both bottom up cost estimates, and we also collected data from real world projects comparing reconductoring projects with greenfield development. We found that reconductoring projects typically cost less than half of building new lines, if not a third or a fourth. Like Jason was saying earlier, because they reuse existing structures, they do not require new right of way acquisition. And oftentimes you can recycle the aluminum from the old ACSR conductor as well.

David Roberts

Oh!

Emilia Chojkiewicz

Yeah, fun fact. And then with all of this, we had the technical details, we had the cost, and we wanted to put it into a power system model.

So we used ReEDS, which is this widely used generation and transmission capacity expansion model developed by NREL, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. This model, basically based on the real world continental US power system, develops a synthetic network of the grid with about 134 zones connected by 300 transmission paths. Usually, the way power system expansion models work is they perform some sort of least cost optimization of the system on a given time horizon. But again, historically, the only tool in the toolbox for expanding transmission capacity has been building new lines. So, if you think about it, we've been basing all of our power system expansion models on the assumption that we're going to build new lines at a certain cost, which really doesn't make sense, because now we have this toolbox of solutions like reconductoring with advanced conductors and other grid enhancing technologies that are definitely lower cost solutions.

And of course, this is going to have implications on the generation resource build out and the total expansion cost. So, we basically expanded the ReEDS model to provide the optionality of reconductoring with our calculated costs. We priced in the cost of substation upgrades because these are also likely to be required if you think about transformers or protection systems. So, we assumed reconductoring will require a brand new substation. And we basically ran four scenarios.

David Roberts

Can I pause there? And this might be too nerdy for us to get into, but why do they require new substations? And there's something about the length that I didn't totally grasp as I was researching this, too. The limits on the length. You have to add substations every 50 miles or so for some reason. Is that worth getting into? What's that all about?

Emilia Chojkiewicz

Yeah, well, regarding your first question, basically, substation upgrades: we assume reconductoring will require a new substation, but it does not have to. You could likely just upgrade the transformers or protection systems that are already in your existing substation.

David Roberts

And is that just because more power is coming through?

Emilia Chojkiewicz

Exactly, exactly. If you think more power means more amps, which means more current, and usually all of that equipment is rated to a certain degree of current.

David Roberts

Right. Got it. Okay.

Emilia Chojkiewicz

So then, regarding your second question, why, for example, do we include the addition of new substations every 50 miles? So the vast majority, like 98% of transmission lines in the US today are relatively short. So, basically, we can put in advanced conductors, perhaps some voltage support, like reactive power compensation, and they could likely double the thermal carrying capacity of the line. Now, about 2% of lines are actually quite long, and they're not limited by thermal considerations. They're limited by voltage or stability considerations. So this pertains to more of the physics of the power grid, rather than the conductors themselves.

And so, for these very long lines, we came across this concept called sectionalization. So, basically, you would appropriately bisect or intersect the existing transmission line, put in a new substation with active and reactive power. So, for example, solar plus storage. And we found that this would likely improve the voltage and stability considerations along the line, while also providing a new point of injection for additional renewables. So this kind of brought us to just generally creative thinking about generation and transmission planning together, which historically hasn't been done.

David Roberts

Yeah. So then, what are those kind of big picture results here once you ran the model?

Emilia Chojkiewicz

Yeah. So I think it boils down to two main results. So, one, I mentioned we ran four scenarios. So, with and without reconductoring as an option, and with and without restrictions on the buildout rate of new transmission, based on recent historical buildout, reflecting permitting and cost allocation challenges. And so we found in that restricted buildout case, which is definitely more realistic, right. That reconductoring with advanced conductors can add nearly four times more transmission capacity between the present day and 2035, between those 134 ReEDS zones, at only an incrementally 20% higher cost compared to the case when only new build is allowed.

And so because we have a transmission capacity increase that is larger and also more distributed, it unlocks access to lower cost and higher quality renewables in more locations across the country. So this, in turn, lowers the total system costs and the ultimate wholesale price of electricity. And that leads to savings for us as consumers. And then within the ReEDS zones themselves, we find that the transmission lines tend to be very short and with lower costs for reconductoring. So it makes it a very compelling case for reconductoring across the board. And then the second main result, we found that in both the restricted and unrestricted buildout cases, the capacity addition through reconductoring accounted for about 65% to 90% of the total interzonal capacity that is added by 2035.

So we're really not saying that you shouldn't build any new lines. Right. But because new lines often take 10 to 15 years to build, really, the optimal strategy to expand transmission — en route to full grid decarbonization — should leverage large scale reconducting in the near term, while new lines for longer term needs are simultaneously planned and permitted and constructed. So there's really a big synergy with reconductoring.

David Roberts

So you get more capacity at lower total system cost much faster.

Emilia Chojkiewicz

Exactly. It's a triple win.

David Roberts

Yeah. So this brings us to the question. Well, actually, one side question. The lines you model using for reconductoring, you say, can double capacity, but Jason's line, he says, can as much as triple capacity. Is there some reason for that delta? Were you just being conservative? Were you not aware of these lines? What's going on there?

Emilia Chojkiewicz

Yeah. So as part of our study, we learned about all sorts of the different advanced composite core conductors available on the market today. And we, for the purposes of our study and our modeling, assumed the most widely deployed advanced conductor to date, which is the ACCC from CTC Global, but more or less across the board. Most of these advanced conductors have pretty similar characteristics. So the base capacity or ampacity increase that they offer is around two times. And then depending on different coatings or configurations, you could likely get even more.

David Roberts

So maybe we should think of your study results as kind of the baseline, the low end, a conservative.

Emilia Chojkiewicz

Yeah, but I think we really have to emphasize that this was just a nationwide power system planning study. What we as part of our now outreach are doing is really encouraging ISOs, RTOs to conduct their own studies and investigate. We don't have the specific network topology that they have, and I think it's really now on them to pick this up and investigate the potential for reconductoring with advanced conductors in their systems.

David Roberts

So then let's talk about policy recommendations, because your report ends with a pretty wide array of policy recommendations aimed at just about everybody. Just about everybody involved in the electricity system gets a recommendation. So maybe just let's run down what you feel like are the most important kind of the top policies that could juice this into happening. And it all comes down to how do you get utilities to care and engage and do this — since there's so many forces of conservatism in that industry, how do you force the issue?

Emilia Chojkiewicz

Yeah, as I mentioned, we've been conducting a lot of outreach with ISOs and RTOs, but also state PUCs within the Department of Energy, the Grid Deployment Office, the Loan Programs Office. We've been talking with some of the largest utilities in the country. And what has stood out to me is the role of regulation in all of this. So really, especially on a state level, I think there's a big role on the part of the state PUCs to get involved, to push utilities to do this. There's also, I think, a big role for FERC. For example, we're expecting a new transmission planning rule this year on long-term transmission planning, and I think there is a huge role for — it mentions, of course, grid enhancing technologies like dynamic line ratings, advanced power flow control, but I think it could definitely also do more on advanced conductors as well.

David Roberts

Interesting. Yeah, because I know FERC is thinking about requiring utilities to look at grid enhancing technologies. Would this just kind of fall in that bucket, or do you think extra action is needed? You think FERC needs to sort of specifically call this out?

Emilia Chojkiewicz

I think there's no right or wrong answer. I think we're just encouraging more conversation and more discussion on this topic. I think what we really need is an all hands on deck approach. So, for example, the Montana state legislature last year passed a law basically providing for advanced conductor cost-effectiveness criteria, allowing advanced conductor rate basing. We would really encourage FERC to consider a national conductor efficiency standard. I'm not saying it's the right answer, but I'm saying it should probably be evaluated.

David Roberts

Oh, so this would be the equivalent of fuel economy standards for cars. You can sort of force the transition to electric vehicles just by cranking up efficiency standards.

Jason Huang

David, if I'm allowed to challenge, we do have mechanisms in place to encourage efficiency. For example, in transformers, there are regulations in place that if you use amorphous metal, which makes it slightly more efficient, you actually have credits, monetary value assigned. That is understood and accepted, embraced by everyone. Yet the much bigger loss in the transmission distribution system is the conductor loss. We have no mechanism, no incentive whatsoever today to encourage a more efficient conductor in consideration.

David Roberts

So there's no regulations in place on conductor efficiency at all right now?

Jason Huang

That is correct. And if I were to put it bluntly, that is the single most transformational policy or regulatory tool our PUCs and the FERC can influence the industry. Do the right thing and you can make it into the interest of everyone, the ratepayers, the utility, the environment. Because if we can unleash the value from, let's say, more efficient conductor, like advanced conductor, the line loss saving economics can be leveraged to subsidize the cost for grid upgrade. And that's where the affordability comes in, and that's where we can and should do more from the regulatory side in terms of encouraging these types of technology.

Another point I wanted to make, this is related to FERC policies: there is actually a policy issued by FERC that is specifically targeting grid enhancing. Grid enhancing is needed because it is basically playing into our existing wires, existing circuit, but you are only able to enhance it by 20% to 30% typical. What we need in the grid is transformational change that allows you to have a 200% capacity increase in the next 20 to 30 years to accommodate energy transition. And that's where FERC and a PUC need to pay attention to advanced conductor that allows you to have that 200% transformational change in grid capacity.

David Roberts

And there's no reason you can't have both, right? I mean, grid enhancing technologies —

Jason Huang

You should have both, you want to leverage both.

David Roberts

And Emilia, there was an infrastructure bill passed. There's a loans program office at DOE that's in part meant to fund sort of ambitious and innovative infrastructure projects. Is the DOE, is the LPO, are they on this? Are they on it?

Emilia Chojkiewicz

Yeah, definitely. I think the DOE is really excited by the opportunity presented by advanced conductors and reconductoring more broadly. We've been talking with the grid deployment office, with the loan programs office, and they're all over this stuff. I think they recognize the opportunity afforded by them and they're ready to jump on. But let me just say, I think, well, of course, we need to pursue our typical channels of convincing regulators and utilities and all of that. But I think what we've been doing as part of our work as well is really thinking about what are some new and creative ways that we can really incentivize uptake if we think about innovative business models, say one idea that we've been toying around with is what if a third party comes in, reconductors an existing line, and then they return the utility their original capacity and auction off the newly added capacity.

It's something that's never really been done before, but it's also something that potentially could help us accelerate and push past the barriers that face reconductoring today.

David Roberts

Just a couple of weeks ago, I was talking to the head of the Connecticut PUC, and she's doing all sorts of innovative things. And one of the things she's doing is setting up a little regulatory, what she calls a regulatory sandbox, which is sort of the ways of testing new technologies and new techniques in kind of a confined area as kind of just to test it out and see if it works. And this seems like a perfect — reconductoring, just seems like a perfect candidate for that. Just test it out in a limited area, get your results, and then expand it on the basis, on the results.

Emilia Chojkiewicz

For sure, but I think I would also add that reconductoring, perhaps, for a single project, may be the value is limited. I think the value from reconductoring really becomes apparent when it's considered on a system level.

David Roberts

Right.

Jason Huang

Yeah, I was just looking at the PUC, the role, and also as an industry, David, you mentioned about our industry being conservative. Each utility is independent, right? And when you have a new technology, each utility is basically asking you to do a pilot. It's like as if we cannot learn from each other, and we do, actually. So, why do we have to do pilots? Every one of us have to do a pilot, right? Is there a mechanism we can do this much faster, much more efficiently? And can the regulator play a role? Can EEI or EPRI be involved in facilitating?

Let's say we have an industry consortium that we're going to have a platform to accelerate technology demonstration. Instead of doing pilots, every one of them have to do a pilot. That's why technology adoption in our industry is very slow and you don't see many changes in our industry.

David Roberts

Yes, witness the century-old technology we're discussing. Well, a final question, and this maybe is for both of you. So one thing that comes up again and again when we talk about adopting electrification technologies, which is the technologies themselves are evolving quickly, like everything involved with electrification is evolving quickly now. And so when it comes to conductors, there are these even more sort of high-tech, futuristic options now called superconductors, which will surround the conducting material in like a frozen gas that enables like four or five x more throughput.

We don't have time to sort of get into superconductors — but my question is more general, which is just especially if you're a utility and you're kind of conservative by nature, do you worry about jumping in and doing big projects with lines when an even fancier higher throughput line might come along in a couple of years? How do you think about where to jump in in terms of the technology evolution? Emilia, maybe start with that. Like, are superconductors on your radar? How do you think about the tech evolution here?

Emilia Chojkiewicz

Yeah, I think the opportunity posed by superconductors is super exciting. I just don't think that they've reached the scale and the maturity to be fully commercial yet. And so in that sense, I think we need to use the tools we have in our toolbox already. So, like advanced conductors and reconductoring and deploy now because we were just talking about pilot projects. But at the end of the day, Belgium was doing pilot projects on advanced conductors in the early 2000s, and now they have so many circuit miles of advanced conductors hanging all around their country.

I think there's been a lot of movement on a lot of these technologies abroad, and I think the US really needs to get on board as well.

David Roberts

And Jason, how do you think about superconductors?

Jason Huang

Yeah, let me put it in three different aspects: one is our industry is conservative for a reason. They put safety, reliability, longevity, resiliency at a premium above and beyond everything else, and they rightly should be doing that. This is why TS technologies are designed in such a way. We have safety, reliability, longevity, design in and with superconductivity, you also have to face the same challenges. You have to meet the same expectations. Number two, it is about the timing, we are losing about 400 billion tons of ice every year on earth. We do not have unlimited time to address climate change.

And that's where, when will the superconductivity become commercially viable?

David Roberts

Right.

Jason Huang

That's the second parameter we have to consider. The third I would look at, what do we need in terms of grid capacity. The projections that I've seen, two to three x is really where we are aiming at. And I believe the technology today, including TS, is already commercially viable, is able to deliver on that three x. And I mentioned about the smart conductor aspect, you can get additional 30% above the three x. That would push it to three to four x. You already have the technology today to meet the need in the next 20 to 30 years.

And what we have to focus on is how to get these commercially viable technology to our system, solving the pressing problems today.

David Roberts

Yeah, well said. And that seems like a great place to wrap it up. This is super fascinating, you guys. Thank you so much for coming on. It looks like just yet another opportunity. Everybody's sort of panicking about transmission right now, panicking about the grid and its limitations and etc. and here's yet another opportunity sitting in front of us to make really rapid progress in grid capacity without the 10 to 15 year process delays. So very exciting all around. Jason, Emilia, thank you for coming on and sharing.

Emilia Chojkiewicz

Thank you for having us.

Jason Huang

Yeah, thanks for the opportunity, David, and I appreciate the work from Emilia and you, because you are creating the awareness to society — not just to our industry — and we actually do need a change in our perspectives. How do we get newer technologies integrated into power grid faster and look at cheaper ways of getting things done and really focus on the essence of the problem — what is the essence of the problem? Affordability and the sense of urgency in addition to safety, reliability, resiliency.

David Roberts

Speed, speed, speed, speed. All right, thanks you all.

Jason Huang

Thank you.

Emilia Chojkiewicz

Thanks, David.

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!)