Monday, June 03, 2024

Good News for America's Power Grid—Mostly


I've been rather negative in this space lately, partly because engineering ethics tends to focus on things that go wrong.  So today I'm going to write about something that the federal government is doing that is mostly right, or at least could turn out that way, depending on how it's done.


Last Tuesday, May 28, the Biden administration announced a federal-state initiative aimed at improving the nation's power grid.  Called the "Federal-State Modern Grid Deployment Initiative," it is a grab-bag of funded projects, coordination initiatives, and regulatory changes that share a common theme:  making the country's power grid more up to date and efficient. 


Twenty-one states are participating in this initial rollout, and all I'll say about that is that my native and current home state of Texas is not one of them.  Ever since World War II, Texas has operated its power grid more or less independently from the rest of the U. S., so it's not surprising that the state decided to pass on this opportunity for federal collaboration too.  But that won't keep Texas from doing the same sorts of things that are being encouraged by the initiative.


One item that caught my eye concerns a backing-off of environmental regulations.  It turns out that, according to the White House press release itself, if a power company wants to merely upgrade an existing transmission line longer than 20 miles, they have to suffer through submitting a detailed environmental review under the National Environmental Policy Act.  This sort of thing can take years, and this is one disincentive that has discouraged grid operators from upgrading their lines.  Well, as part of the grid initiative, the government is now allowing companies to do the "simplest form" of environmental review.  Whether they can put it on a postcard is unclear, but it looks like an improvement, at least on paper. 


Another part of the initiative encourages transmission-line operators to "reconductor" their lines, with financial incentives that up to now have been lacking.  If a given region needs more power delivered, a grid operator has two choices:  either build more transmission lines into the area, or upgrade existing lines with what are called "advanced conductors."  Traditional power transmission lines—the high-voltage ones supported on the big steel towers—consist of a core of steel strands for strength surrounded by aluminum strands that do the conducting.  Even at the low frequency of 60 Hz, most of the current flows on the outer regions of such a conductor, so the poorly-conducting steel in the middle doesn't cause too many losses, although it does contribute some.


Well, advanced conductor technology that is apparently a few decades old can increase the maximum carrying capacity of a transmission line.  The steel core is replaced by composite materials (carbon or ceramic fibers in some cases), and the plain round wire-drawn aluminum is replaced by annealed aluminum trapezoids, which somehow work better.  The overall result is that you can carry two to three times the maximum load with advanced conductors compared to the traditional ones.


Why haven't so-called "reconductoring" projects been carried out much until now?  Partly because of a perverse disincentive built into the funding structure of how electric utilities operate in the U. S.  Many funding formulas allow the companies to be reimbursed as a fraction of their total investment.  It's cheaper to reconductor an existing line than to build an entirely new transmission line, so up to now many grid operators have been choosing the more expensive route to maximize their allowed return on investment.  The federal grid initiative has money and regulatory features designed to even the playing field so that it will make more economic sense to replace older conductors with newer, more efficient ones, rather than cluttering up the landscape with new transmission lines over different routes, along with all the environmental hassles which new lines involve.


I suspect the Biden administration was hoping that its environment-friendly constituents were looking the other way during the announcement of this initiative, because most of the time it has pushed for more environmental regulation, not less.  But the whole thing is being sold as a big step toward the overarching goal of "tackling the climate crisis," meaning converting the grid to renewables.  And certainly we need more transmission-grid capacity to deal with the odd places that large lumps of power are showing up, mostly in the sunny, windy West, while most of the energy is needed in the soggy, cloudy North and East. 


Two critical technical issues were not mentioned in the press release for the initiative, although they may have been addressed somewhere in the fine print.  One is the vulnerability of our power grid to the unlikely but potentially devastating effects of either a strong geomagnetic storm or a nuclear-bomb-triggered electromagnetic pulse.  I understand that relatively simple and inexpensive measures could be taken now to make the grid much more resilient against such events, but as the power companies have no financial incentive to install them, they mostly haven't.


The other issue concerns grid stability.  It turns out that the typical solar or wind farm is a "grid-following" installation, in that it takes its cue from the grid's AC voltage and just follows along with it.  As long as such grid-following sources are a small percentage of the total power coming into the grid, there is no problem and the power gets used like any other source of power would.  But if too many followers crowd out the conventional spinning-turbine grid leaders, the whole grid gets unstable and is likely to collapse in the case of sudden shocks such as the loss of a large chunk of power.  There is a way to fix this:  to make renewable sources pretend to be spinning-turbine sources.  But it costs more, and nobody installing just one additional renewable source is going to want to spend that kind of money.


Perhaps such global concerns will come up in the coordinating meetings that the federal initiative will hold, and they'll address those issues too.  Even if they don't, it looks like this is a government initiative which is actually likely to produce solid benefits, even if it's technical and rather boring to the average citizen.  But engineers are used to being viewed that way, and these days I think we can use some low-drama good news in the public sector for a change.


Sources:  I referred to the White House news release issued on May 28 at,  a Nebraska Examiner article at, and an item on reconductoring in Forbes at

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