Utilities Will Shape - Or Be Shaped by - A Net-Zero America

Authors: Caroline Kenton and Ben Silton

At the end of 2020, a team of Princeton University researchers published an interim report on potential pathways to reaching a Net-Zero (emissions) America. Recognizing that Earth’s increasing temperatures are climbing more drastically than initially thought, they encourage and explore plans for reaching net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 to help keep global temperature rise below 2 degrees Celsius and avoid the worst effects of climate change

While the report is extremely valuable as one of the only comprehensive explorations of reaching an emissions-neutral America, let’s face it: not all of us have several hours to invest into digesting a dense, data-heavy 350-page report. Here, we break down this report and some key findings, and discuss potential implications for utilities – with a special focus on electric transmission. We all understand that there will be sweeping changes over the next couple of decades, but let’s use the data we have to make informed decisions to improve and prepare our grid.

Report Summary

Before jumping into the implications of the report, let’s walk through an executive summary of the research. 

The Princeton report asserts that additional capital investments into energy supply, industry, buildings, and vehicles totaling no less than $2.5 trillion over the next decade are required to reach net-zero emissions by 2050. These investments must be focused on:

  • Electrification
  • Clean electricity
  • Zero-carbon fuels
  • Carbon Capture, Utilization and Storage (CCUS)
  • Reduction of non-CO2 emissions (e.g. methane)
  • Land sinks

These focus areas will require an increase in electrification, which is already well underway with the expansion of electric vehicles (EVs) and space heating. Specifically, in the next ten years, there needs to be an increased deployment of wind and solar power, an investment in critical enabling infrastructure like EV chargers, and a demonstration of reliable innovation in energy generation, distribution and storage.

Depending on the scale of US electrification, electricity demand could come at a variety of ranges. This is why Princeton researchers model 5 different scenarios of demand increase as displayed below. Importantly, electrification more than doubles by 2050 across all 5 pathways modeled. This is a critical point, so we’ll just go ahead and repeat it: to sufficiently reduce America’s emissions, electrification must at least double. The paradoxical inevitability of increased electricity demand in the pursuit of lowering emissions only further emphasizes the need for rapid and comprehensive transformations in the ways in which we produce – and transport – energy as a nation.

Additionally, end-use demand for electricity grows almost 50% in even modest electrification scenarios and up to 90% in the high electrification scenarios. This increase is largely driven by the pace of electrification of (a) transportation and (b) heating. Even with demand flexibility growing in parallel, current distribution networks will not be able to accommodate this increase in electricity. Princeton’s models estimate that distribution networks will need to accommodate a 5-10% increase in peak demand by 2030 and a 40-60% increase by 2050. As we’ll explore, that is no trivial task.

Projected growth in electricity demand is the backbone of Princeton’s recommendations. The priority action items by 2030 for this transition need to be transportation and heating focused. The research team states that there will need to be roughly 50 million electric cars and 3 million installed public charging ports nationwide by 2030. Additionally, the share of electric heat pumps for home heating must increase to 23% from just 10% today, coupled with a tripling of heat pumps in commercial buildings. These milestones require a ~60% expansion of high-voltage transmission capacity to deliver clean energy where it is needed – and this transmission must be planned and permitted to enable clean energy expansion (e.g. siting large projects in areas with high renewables resources).

Expansion of High-Voltage Transmission

If high-voltage transmission is so crucial in America’s net-zero emission future, questions about its ability to meet renewable energy capacity emerge. America’s solar resources are concentrated most heavily in the Southwest, while wind resources are strongest in the Midwest; yet, the highest population densities are generally along both US coasts, and thus massive transportation infrastructure projects will be required to move all that power over long distances. Unfortunately, about 10% of power is lost to resistance every 1,000 miles in conventional transmission, so a cross-country transmission line could realize losses of over 30%. To address this issue, we either need new transmission rights-of-way (ROWs) — which Russell Gold taught us ain’t easy — and/or we need new conductor replacements with reduced electric resistance, higher heat resistance and thus higher transmission capacity; to increase the capacity of the lines we already have with dynamic line rating; and/or reinforcing retrofits to mitigate sag, vibration and heat.

New Conductor Materials

Conventional aluminum-conductor steel-reinforced cable (ACSR) has been the utility standard for over 100 years; suffice it to say it’s due for an upgrade. VEIR — a seed-stage startup with high-temperature superconductors — is developing a potential solution for high-voltage transmission losses: their proprietary technology is expected to maintain superconductivity at 10x the current of conventional wires. Another potential option is carbon fiber, which has shown mixed results (most concerns are with its longevity); but one promising solution comes from TS Conductor. Their technology is based on a carbon composite core and annealed aluminum sheathing which allows for a strong but light and flexible conductor with high conductivity and minimal thermal expansion, enabling higher throughput (i.e. current).

Both technologies, like their peers, will take years to prove their worth – yet the key value proposition worth considering here is that replacing an existing transmission line is likely much easier than siting a new one (though, we will need both). Yet when making these expansions, how much should be funded by the government versus private entities? Perhaps more critical is: how do cross-country transmission lines that span many utility territories — with varying equipment standards and requirements — operate seamlessly? While the technology to address transmission is complicated, figuring out the logistics of cross-country transmission may prove even more taxing.

Dynamic Line Rating

One option for modernizing and expanding the flexibility of transmission and distribution wires is Dynamic Line Rating (DLR) which determines conductor thermal line rating through continuous, real-time data collection. Using DLR could reduce costly grid congestion and speed up the interconnection of renewables by monitoring wind, temperature, humidity, and vegetation conditions – as well as the lines themselves – in order to inform line operators when it’s safe to move more power through the lines. As you may expect, the vast majority of the time, statically-rated conductors could safely move significantly more power than they actually do (see a good summary here).

For some real-life examples: LineVision’s DLR solution can trigger a corrective action like switching line loading or triggering an inspection. A similar technology is offered by Ampacimon whose system consists of sensors installed on high-voltage lines that measure key parameters influencing the maximum thermal capacity of a line (vibrations, temperature, sag, wind speed). These technologies allow for a more robust risk management strategy because of their ability to monitor continuously. However, they also beg the question: how would you address an issue that could have downstream effects if transmission is spanning different utility companies? This is sure to be a challenge for utilities in the years to come and will require multi-stakeholder coordination and standards.

Reinforcing Retrofits

The technologies delineated above can be viable long-term solutions, but all require serious investment and planning; therefore, it is important to consider what near-term opportunities are available. Reinforcing retrofits, or additive technologies to mitigate operational issues, could be a major avenue worth exploring. One such option is ALD Technical Solutions’ WireWrap, which can be retrofitted on wires to mitigate line sag, reduce vibration, and increase heat resistance – thereby increasing the capacity of lines. We at ADL have also strategized with entrepreneurs developing methods of harnessing line energy to counteract operational issues like vibration and line swinging. We’re excited to see what else emerges in the coming years.

In any case, there’s a fine line between investing in temporary technologies and planning for future, long-term innovation, so these decisions need to be carefully calculated. For example, consider the labor implications of retrofitting thousands of miles of transmission with anything at all: if you’re going to go through all that trouble, why not wait a couple years to see what new technologies may emerge? There’s no straightforward answer, to be sure, as this is as much a strategic question as it is an economic and technical question.

Questions, Questions, and More Questions

A related recent study out of MIT encourages a US-wide transmission build-out because it would allow a shift to clean energy without requiring undue investment in clean energy technologies in regions with relatively low resource potential (e.g. sunlight). In other words, as this study asserts, it would be most cost-effective to create a transmission network that allows for power sharing rather than overbuilding renewables in all regions to reach the same decarbonization goals. But national energy unity is not something that has been implemented before: what policies would we need in order to have nationwide power sharing rather than state-by-state energy production? Would nation-wide power sharing help to overcome the massive capital costs for transmission and the extensive regulatory challenges?

As we hope this article demonstrates, the answers to these questions are anything but simple, and we’re early on in our shared pursuit of the best answers. In the meantime, let’s layer in here the shifting status-quo: more and more renewables are built every day, technological innovation and maturity is shifting the cost landscape, and the changing climate is throwing more and more challenges at grid operators and managers. The pursuit of a cleaner country may actually require the whole country to work together – if we’re going to do this right.

Our Role

Across all 5 different scenarios proposed by Princeton’s NZA report, despite varying levels of electrification, the need for rapid expansion of electricity-generating capacity is clear. With increased electrification is a growing need to bring generation closer to load, or else all the aforementioned transmission and distribution upgrades will require even more resources. 

In the path towards a Net-Zero America, we need increased efficiency. Holistically speaking, this is not just a challenge of reducing demand, but supply and transportation as well. As discussed above, much of this efficiency will come from increased monitoring and visibility into the real-time conditions of energy distribution. Here at ADL, we are focused on identifying the weaknesses for energy suppliers and utilities and finding the appropriate technologies to address these pain points. Whether it be DLR technologies for increased monitoring or high-temperature superconductors, we need stronger relationships between the legacy utility sector and innovators to achieve a Net-Zero America. 

If you have thoughts to share on the questions we pose, or would like to discuss what this means for you, please contact us!