Making electricity gets a lot of press. Generation is the sexy side of the industry – solar, wind, hydro. Even energy conservation is viewed as appealing.
The transmission and distribution side of the industry isn’t so lucky. T&D is also sometimes just called the wires side of the business. Wires are not on consumers’ minds until there is a storm outage, or people see a utility trimming trees to protect power lines.
Shortchanging T&D will make us all pay in the long run. There is work to be done. Many of the benefits of renewables, energy storage, or smart meter implementation, will not be fully realized without a modern T&D system.
We need a grid reboot.
Some definitions to start. Big structures with large power lines are part of the transmission system. The small poles that get the power to your home or small business are the distribution system. Of the two, distribution changes can be an easier sell to people; closer to home, improvements are visible.
Grids require maintenance. “Utilities are making $100 billion in investments annually to upgrade their aging grids. They also face pressure to make their infrastructure more resilient to extreme weather events, which are becoming more frequent because of climate change,” reported Bloomberg News.
So, where are we today on T&D?
Our grid that has been built around generation being put close to greatest load. Consider how coal or nuclear plants have been built near cities.
Now power generation is happening where the resources are. Think wind in the Midwest. It is where the wind is. So the grid has to move energy over longer distances because the resources aren’t necessarily near where the load needs are. so power has to be transmitted.
New technologies highlight smaller, numerous generation sources, like solar. That change is big. The transmission grid is not optimized for what is needed for the future.
There are some major examinations of T&D around the country now.
Duke Energy in North Carolina had a proposal to upgrade the system, but it was rejected. What started as an improvement of more than $10 million was rejected by NC’s public utility commission and settled on 2.5 billion over four years.
Florida has done significant T&D work, especially to “harden” the system. That work vastly improved restoration times following Hurricane Maria.
Massachusetts is looking at changes in the grid that will be needed when a large natural gas and oil generating plant, the Mystic Power Station, is retired in 2024. (Source)
California is doing a lot of T&D work to manage wildfire issues. The challenge is to have lines shut down automatically if they drop in the forest, to know the difference between a fault and a momentary lapse in power.
Digital is part of the future, too. Electric is not the same as digital. Digitization of the grid has to happen to build a real two-way grid communications and operations system.
Distribution especially is about digitization. Services to homes and businesses. Digitization opens up methods for energy conservation and faster repairs of the system. A digital grid is faster to find and fix problems.
Large transmission lines are needed, and tougher to build now. Why?
Big facilities of many kinds can be tough to site. Transmission towers are big and are part of a network, so there are many of them, and there are rights of way. People may not want them nearby, though they want the electricity.
I was told by a T&D expert that one of the difficult concepts with transmission is that it is just passing through someone’s land. The lines are taking power somewhere else, whereas distribution is delivering power to your house or farm. It may be more difficult to accept something when the benefits for you personally are difficult to see.
There are good two-way corporate/community communications going on, though. Citizens can voice their feelings. Hopefully it will be done with a constructive and respectful manner.
Here’s an example of communication. Appalachian Power looks to upgrade the transmission system serving customers in northern West Virginia. “The Lakin-Racine Transmission Line Rebuild Project involves upgrading approximately 13 miles of transmission line in or near the existing right-of-way, and upgrading a substation in the area.” This is part of a larger regional system upgrade that serves many states. The company has a virtual town meeting set-up as a part of the input process.
It is not just big projects that may be tough to site. What we could easily see is a “farmland versus solar field” discussion. It’s a rumble under the surface now. This could pit out of state solar field owners versus in-state farmers. This puts nuances on the energy and natural resources debate that may not have been expected.
Grid stories can have a lot of angles. Understanding the real news behind them takes a lot of reading, putting context in the story depending on who is writing the stories and why.
Advice to readers of ECC: Pay attention to T&D and how to to build a modern system that serves us all. It needs to happen.