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Shining Light on Missed Opportunities – Grid Efficiency, Climate Change & More

image credit: CTC Global Linemen at work

Background:

For over 100 years engineers have found brilliant ways to improve the efficiency of electric power plant generators to increase power output and reduce operating costs. In the 1980’s focus shifted towards developing more energy efficient demand-side appliances to reduce the need to build new ‘hard-to-permit’ generation facilities. In 1992, The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change took place in Rio de Janeiro. A treaty was subsequently entered into in 1994 with the objective of stabilizing greenhouse gas emissions to prevent anthropogenic interference with the climate system.

While many of us in the power sector looked at “global warming” as a scientific curiosity, it wasn’t until 2005 and 2012 when Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy drove home the reality that climate change is happening and doing substantial damage to our electric power infrastructure. Storms have increased in frequency and severity and the damage has cost Utilities and Consumers billions of dollars.

Utility Response:

In an effort to reduce GHG emissions (and other pollutants) and combat climate change, electric power producers have moved quite successfully into the wind, solar and geothermal businesses. Coal plants also continue to be decommissioned and/or converted to cleaner natural gas fired plants, which has helped. International Banks, for the most part, have also discontinued funding conventional coal fired plants and Green Bond financing is becoming an important part of the new landscape. All of these efforts are helping, and, in addition to supporting the use of even more energy efficient appliances – such as LED lightbulbs, many larger utilities have established very significant carbon reduction goals. For instance, we now have Sustainability Divisions within a number of Utilities that are exploring and implementing various strategies to meet very challenging CO2 emission reduction objectives. We discuss these objectives in our Annual Reports, Consumers love the stories and Politicians are paying attention.  

What’s Missing:

While the battles of NIMBYism and Unripe Policy continue to fetter the development of much needed investment in new transmission to help deliver clean power from remote facilities to load centers, the existing infrastructure (as Swaraj Jammalamadaka recently stated) ‘is like a 2G communication system in a world aiming for - and in desperate need of a 5G system.’  According to the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), our electric power infrastructure has earned a D+ Rating. That is not good, and it has not changed in years. In 2019, Drs Jordaan and Surana from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, Washington, DC and the Center for Global Sustainability, School of Public Policy, University of Maryland College Park, respectively, reported that nearly one billion metric tons of CO2 equivalents per year can be attributed to transmission and distribution line inefficiencies.

The Opportunity:

Improving the efficiency of our electric power grid offers numerous benefits and ASCE reports that 80% of the population in the U.S. supports the proposed investment. Using modern technology, such as the ACCC Conductor, will not only help provide access to the least expensive and cleanest sources of generation, it will also serve to reduce line losses by 25 to 40 percent or more. Reduced line losses serves to reduce fuel consumption and associated GHG emissions, while also delivering more power from our existing sources of clean generation.

What’s equally as remarkable is the fact that this technology will help conserve water. Did you know that 40 percent of all clean water consumed in the U.S. is used to produce steam that runs turbine generators in nuclear and fossil fuel fired power plants? These power plants use anywhere from 10 to 60 gallons of clean (highly filtered) water to produce a single kilowatt hour of electricity. That’s right. Turn on a 100 watt incandescent light bulb and, without knowing it, you are most likely using anywhere from 1 to 6 gallons of water every hour, not to mention the energy required to pump and filter it.

Additional Benefits:

In addition to reducing electrical line losses, consumer costs, GHG emissions, and water consumption, the use of modern ACCC Conductors also serves to improve grid reliability and resilience. Though a number of emerging transmission technologies can help control load flow and increase line capacity when ambient conditions allow, a high-strength, high-capacity, low-sag conductor does its job the moment its installed without relying on the calibration of ancillary devices.

High-strength, low-sag ACCC Conductors can also operate safely above tree lines to reduce the likelihood of coming into contact with vegetation - potentially starting devastating wildfires. The ability of these high-capacity, low-sag conductors to carry twice the current of conventional steel reinforced ACSR conductors can also allow, in many instances, the ability to reroute power around high-risk fire areas when conditions warrant. While a fire reduction strategy may not be a first-tier climate change mitigation strategy, it certainly wouldn’t hurt.

Call to Action:

The high-capacity, energy-efficient ACCC Conductor has been deployed to more than 800 projects in 52 countries with a 15+ year track record of success. In many countries – from Bangladesh to Brazil – many Utilities consider conductor efficiency and include efficiency criteria directly in their design documents and tenders. Project funders such as the Asian Development Bank and World Bank are doing the same thing. This is because they recognize that the use of modern conductors can not only support the delivery of affordable and reliable power to support economic development, they can also help the Funders and Utilities achieve their emission reduction initiatives and mandates. There is no reason we can’t do the same thing here in the U.S. We just need to get all of the right people together in the same room at the same time. Until then, as Mazda would say, “Zoom Zoom.”

Discussions

Julian Jackson's picture
Julian Jackson on Aug 20, 2020

There are quite a few issues mixed together which make the utilities sector slow to adopt climate catastrophe measures.

The transmission technology, as you rightly point out is old, built for a different era and dedicated to large, central power stations. It's long established infrastructure so resistant to change.

The marketisation and splitting up of parts of the network into competing operations does not help if we need to do something countrywide.

Regulators and the like, are set up for the existing structure. EVs putting juice into the grid, microgrids, storage systems - bureaucracies feel this is like grit in a machine, so need to be pushed by politicians to reform: unfortunately many politicians are focused on the next election, not 20-30 years of infrastructure development. National grids were originally centrally planned and perhaps that is the framework we should go back to, heretical as that might sound.

 

Dave Bryant's picture
Dave Bryant on Aug 20, 2020

Very good points, Julian. Plenty of challeges. Hopefully FERCS new policy will help.

Dave Bryant's picture

Thank Dave for the Post!

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