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A Rarely Used Technique Could Double U.S. Grid Capacity

As the U.S. introduces a wide array of alternative energy options, the government is rapidly seeking ways to improve and expand the grid system. Much of the grid infrastructure is outdated, built to rely on electricity supplies from a few major energy hubs. However, as more green energy projects crop up in atypical locations - such as rural regions and offshore sites - it is becoming increasingly difficult to ensure that energy will reach the grid for distribution. Many energy experts believe it will take a complete overhaul to prepare the grid for the rapid growth of the country's renewable energy capacity. Yet, some believe it may be possible to roll out a rarely used technique to upgrade old power lines across the U.S. 

Building new power lines often takes a decade or longer due to red tape and other restrictions. However, some experts believe it may be possible to improve the U.S. grid much faster by using a method that is widely used in several other countries around the globe. Two reports released this month suggest that replacing existing power lines with cables made from state-of-the-art materials could potentially double the capacity of the grid across many parts of the U.S., allowing more renewable energy projects to be connected. 

The technique, 'advanced reconductoring', would replace the traditional approach to transmission line construction. Most of the powerlines in the U.S. are made up of steel cores coated in strands of aluminium, as electricity companies continue to use the century-old, tried-and-tested design. However, some companies have developed innovative cables, which use smaller and lighter cores, such as carbon fibre, that have a greater energy transport capacity than aluminium. While the technology is available in the U.S., many major companies have been reluctant to make the switch due to their unfamiliarity with the materials, as well as the fear of regulatory and bureaucratic limitations. 

Most importantly, replacing old transmission lines can be done quickly and prevents the need for regulatory approval for new power infrastructure. The technique is also significantly cheaper than a total infrastructure overhaul, costing around half the price of constructing new lines. The reports suggested that if utilities started replacing the thousands of miles of power lines they could add four times as much transmission capacity by 2035 as they are currently on pace to do. Amol Phadke, a senior scientist at the University of California, Berkeley and contributor to the report, stated "We were pretty astonished by how big of an increase in capacity you can get by reconductoring." 

Some companies have already begun to replace old powerlines with new, higher-capacity lines. In Nevada, NV Energy installed 125 miles of advanced conductors across 25 lines, with a further 18 projects to follow. The project is expected to reduce wildfire risks, cut costs, and double capacity along its Big Creek transmission corridor. Meanwhile, in 2005, Minnesota-based Excel Energy added new lines using the reconductoring technique in Minneapolis-St, doubling the capacity. Project approval was granted in 30 days and the project was completed in just eight weeks. 

Several energy companies across the U.S. have been complaining about their inability to connect projects to the grid due to infrastructure limitations. While the government and National Grid are investing in improvements, they cannot keep up with the speed at which new green energy projects are being developed, particularly following the introduction of the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) climate policy in 2022. Other companies are reluctant to develop projects without the assurance that adequate infrastructure will be in place when they become operational. 

The use of innovative cable materials will not completely solve the transmission problem, as many renewable energy projects are located in unconventional energy production areas, too far from the existing grid infrastructure to be connected. The Department of Energy predicts that the U.S. transmission lines network will need to expand by two-thirds or more by 2035 to achieve President Biden's goals of powering the country with clean energy. Nevertheless, it could significantly increase the capacity of the existing infrastructure to ensure that investments in green energy projects are not wasted, as suppliers wait to be connected, and that more energy can be distributed countrywide as the U.S. energy demand grows. 

However, to roll out the advanced reconductoring technique countrywide, utilities must get regulators on board. Regulators are often wary of approving new technologies where there are tried-and-tested alternatives. In addition, as the wires are more expensive than those currently being used, they may be sceptical of investing money in the technique. Further, due to the uncertainty around the level of growing energy demand in various parts of the U.S., several regulators may see the high cost of "futureproofing" the grid as a risky move. 

By Felicity Bradstock for Oilprice.com

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Felicity Bradstock

Felicity Bradstock is a freelance writer specialising in Energy and Finance. She has a Master’s in International Development from the University of Birmingham, UK. More