Moving the Grid Forward
Charles Bayless is a retired utility executive and board member for TS Conductor, among many other industry affiliations.
As a longtime veteran of the utility industry, I know that I'm biased, but I've also seen enough in this business to say the following with confidence: transmission and distribution infrastructure is the backbone of this country's energy transition.
In all aspects of America's energy leadership, the towers, poles, and wires are crucial. They are vital for grid modernization, reliability, affordability, resilience, decarbonization to reach climate targets, scale our robust renewable energy sector, and meet the needs of the exploding electric vehicle revolution. T&D systems are the connective tissue behind the power that energizes the economy.
And yet, even though we're now more than two decades into a new millennium, T&D conductors remain grounded in technology that dates to the early 1900s, a century ago. It is an area of grid infrastructure ripe for innovation.
If we're going to operate a twenty-first century power grid, we need to vault the underlying conductor technology out of the twentieth century. I'm proud to say that the moment of innovation has at last arrived in earnest.
The Rise of Advanced Conductors
I suspect that many readers of this publication are already familiar with the two types of conductors that dominate T&D systems today. Aluminum conductor steel reinforced (ACSR) dates to the early 1900s. In the 1970s, aluminum conductor steel supported (ACSS) technology came along, improving the original design. These two technologies, and their variants, dominate the conductor market today.
Starting in the 1990s and into the early 2000s, the pages of this publication began covering advanced conductors, defined by the promise of features such as higher ampacity and lower sag.
Now in the 2020s, we're seeing that promise become reality.
Technology vendors such as TS Conductor have brought to market a new generation of ready-to-deploy advanced conductors, while a growing list of grid operators are employing those conductors in the field across an impressive array of use cases and geographies. (Disclosure: this author serves on the board of TS Conductor.)
For the famously risk-averse, we-love-the-tried-and-true utility industry, it is an innovation for which time has come. Advanced conductors are to T&D networks what the switch to fiber optic Internet from copper wiring was for telecommunications.
A Look Inside Advanced Conductors
One of the defining aspects of advanced conductors is their core. It's a classic case of out with the old (steel) and in with the new (carbon). For example, TS Conductor's solution uses a carbon fiber core fully encapsulated in a sheath of seamless aluminum.
The carbon fiber is super strong, ultra lightweight, and has essentially no sag. In tandem, the encapsulating aluminum keeps out moisture and other elements. This prevents corrosion and other problems that plagued earlier generations of advanced conductors, while also allowing line crews to work with the conductor using tools and techniques with which they're already familiar.
Beyond the core, like their predecessors, advanced conductors make extensive use of aluminum stranding, although with some upgrades. Thanks to the high-strength, lightweight core, advanced conductors like that of TS can be wound with trapezoidal strands of the highest-conductivity annealed aluminum. This translates to advanced conductors with triple the ampacity and half the line losses vs. like-for-like traditional ACSR/ACSS conductors.
Many Grid Challenges, One Conductor Solution
It's one thing to talk excitedly about the material properties of advanced conductors, but they shine when we translate that into what it all means for grid operators. Here are a few major benefits:
Grid modernization and transmission system expansion: Let's face it. Much of today's T&D infrastructure is aging and in need of updating. Moreover, establishing new rights of way for needed transmission system expansion faces permitting obstacles and takes many years, even decades, to accomplish.
Advanced conductors make it possible to deploy big upgrades within existing rights of way, even reusing existing towers for reconductoring projects that can be accomplished with relative lightning speed and for lower total costs that make ratepayers, consumer advocates, and public utility commissions happy.
Renewable energy integration to decarbonize the power sector: As of earlier this year, more than one thousand three hundred fifty gigawatts of new renewable energy capacity sat waiting in interconnection queues. That's more than the capacity of the entire current generation fleet across the U.S.
In addition, in parts of the country where renewables, such as wind or solar have already become substantial portions of the dispatch stack, we're also seeing increasing frequency and magnitude of renewables curtailment. Both the interconnection backlog and rising curtailment are in part byproducts of a single issue: renewable energy sits stuck behind congestion bottlenecks in transmission networks. Advanced conductoring can unleash a wave of additional, low-cost renewable energy, accelerating America's progress toward power sector decarbonization and national climate targets.
Serving demand from EVs and the electrify everything movement: On the demand side for grid operators, it's no secret that massive amounts of new load are anticipated in the coming years.
The sources are many. Both automotive EVs and trucking electrification are scaling faster than initial market forecasts.
The electrify everything movement is seeing electric heat pumps for HVAC to induction cooktops in the kitchen switch over to the grid from natural gas. And intensifying summer heat waves are seeing regions such as ERCOT set record after record as air conditioning and other loads send demand to new heights. We need advanced conductors to serve that oncoming tsunami of new load.
Reliability and resilience: Finally, thanks to their super high strength paired with low- to no-sag properties, advanced conductors shine in terms of grid reliability and resilience in the face of extreme conditions and severe weather. For instance, during dry, hot summer months, advanced conductors don't sag the way ACSR/ACSS conductors do. This mitigates wildfire risks and reduces the need to de-energize lines for public safety power shutoff (PSPS) events. On the flip side, in cold climates, advanced conductors are better able to bear the weight of winter icing, keeping the lights on.
Grid Operators Leading the Way
So, have advanced conductors truly arrived? From what I see, the tipping point is here. TS has gained the backing of respected utility names such as National Grid Partners and NextEra Energy, plus it was admitted to Dominion's Energy Innovation Center. Earlier this year, TS also won a 2023 Stage 2 CABLE Conductor Manufacturing Prize from the U.S. Department of Energy American Made Challenge.
The biggest proof, of course, is in the field. On that front, too, advanced conductors are getting called into action by leading grid operators.
Consider Tennessee Valley Authority, the largest public utility in the country, serving roughly ten million customers. Transmission line systems engineering & design lead Jeff Phillips and the TVA team have experimented with advanced conductors for more than a decade, but the recent pairing with TS Conductor has been a game changer for TVA's reconductoring projects.
TS technology costs less than other advanced conductors and the total project cost to reconductor a line is significantly less than traditional options. As Phillips noted recently, "This project tells the story of how to better use our rights of way."
For another example, consider lead engineer Tyler Tegtmeyer and the team at MidAmerican Energy, a Berkshire Hathaway Energy subsidiary and investor-owned utility serving 1.6 million customers. MidAmerican has been installing TS Conductor technology for a transmission line reconductoring project spanning the Mississippi River. The advanced conductors have allowed them to re-use existing towers, saving valuable time and money on the project.
These are just two stellar examples of a growing number of deployments for advanced conductors in the field. We are hopefully seeing the dawn of the next century of grid infrastructure, with advanced conductors the heir apparent to legacy ACSR/ACSS conductors.
Thanks to technology breakthroughs by companies like TS Conductor — and the leadership and deployment of Tegtmeyer and the MidAmerican team, as well as Phillips and the TVA team — grid operators everywhere are now seeing the true potential of advanced conductors. Following the lead of these first movers, as utilities' confidence with this technology grows, the future for grid modernization becomes ever more promising.