Electric Grid Improvement Is All Around Us

From Scott Carlberg

Some changes in our electric grid are hard to see. They are electric generating facilities being built or taken down, far from our daily view. Other changes in the grid are easy to see if we just look around. Here’s an example from a quick trip of mine in North Carolina just this week.

This is an upgrade in power poles along an intermediate highway. The wooden utility poles (left), which have done yeoman’s work over the years to hold the power lines, are being replaced by larger metal poles.

New and complex pole in high power-use, expanding commercial area

Why? These are tough metal poles. They can help ensure that power stay on, and higher poles keep lines above tree levels better than shorter poles. Metal poles cost more, certainly. They last longer, too. They forestall outages and maintenance, so there are costs that are avoided with these metal poles. These poles improve reliability for customers.

Here’s an analogy that may help. Auto tires cost more than they used to cost, but tires are better and get more miles. New tech tires are less likely to leave a driver stranded. As a driving public we have upgraded our tires. We are safer for it and have fewer problems.

New metal pole; work in progress

Back to the grid. “Hardening the system” is the phrase some energy professionals use when they talk about these kinds of upgrades. Often that term is noted when discussing big, severe weather events such as hurricanes or ice storms, and here’s one TV news story about the way power poles were impacted in the Florida Panhandle during Hurricane Michael. Good example.

Upgrades also harden the poles against accidents, too, like vehicle damage. One utility in the Midwest said it has 900 power poles a year damaged by vehicles.

The term grid improvement gets tossed around, and it is no narrow concept. The term encompasses everything from the power lines people see along a highway, high voltage lines that cross the countryside on the super structures, lines that lead from a generation source, or substations that disperse electricity to neighborhoods.

Wood and metal poles by-by-side. In transition.

Grid updates are an essential part of keeping our system up and running, as with any physical facility, such as a home, business building or vehicle. It is a race, though, as the system ages and new technology can be implemented.

In 2017 the American Society of Civil Engineers issued its Infrastructure Report Card. The ASCE gave our grid a D+. The ASCE made recommendations to make our electric grid stronger. Three of the recommendations:

  • Streamline permitting processes, to facilitate prompt construction of critical new transmission lines and natural gas pipelines. Process streamlining must include steps to consider alternative approaches and ensure prudent and safe routing.
  • Develop a national “storm hardening” plan that considers investment in T&D, refinery, and generation systems that withstand storms or that enable rapid restoration of energy supply after storm events.
  • Increase new and rebuilt distribution lines’ minimum design loads for ice, wind, and temperature to improve reliability and public safety and reduce inconveniences associated with power outages.

Knowing how to keep our power service healthy is useful as all of us customers depend on our electric service for our own safety and health, not just convenience. Sometimes it is easy to see those changes happening on the grid, just look around.