The passage of the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) shows that politicians are finally ready to take steps towards addressing climate change by reducing greenhouse gas emissions and investing in renewable energy. Now is the time for the electric utility industry to innovate. They must prepare for the changes and challenges facing the electric power grid as electric energy production is decarbonized.
In this article, we’ll explore three innovations that will be key for electric utilities to meet the goals of the Inflation Reduction Act:
Repurpose existing infrastructure and available land to meet the demand for increased renewable energy generation and transmission.
Improve flow control to increase electric energy transmission capacity and accommodate distributed renewable energy sources.
Convert neighborhood substations to electric warehouses with stored energy capacity to meet increased electric energy demand.
Let’s take a closer look at each of these innovations.
Innovation 1: Repurpose Existing Infrastructure
Rather than building all new infrastructure to support increased renewable energy transmission, existing infrastructure should be repurposed. This is especially important when installing new centralized, renewable generating facilities, such as wind farms, which are vital to meet carbon emission reduction goals.
First, electric utilities should identify preferred locations for new renewable energy projects by finding existing sites with infrastructure that can be repurposed. Ideal locations may include Tillamook, Oregon and Ocean View, New Jersey, where transmission lines have been built to transfer energy from inland locations to coastal towns. These same transmission lines could be used to transfer wind energy from offshore wind farms to inland load centers, like the Portland Metro area and Philadelphia.
For land-based renewable energy facilities, ideal locations include the sites of large, decommissioned coal-fired or nuclear power plants. Specific locations may include Page, Arizona, where the Navajo Generating Station was shut down in 2019; Beverly, Ohio, where the Muskingum River Power Plant was decommissioned in 2014; or Crystal River, Florida, where the Crystal River Nuclear Plant is currently being decommissioned. Other sites are available across the U.S., including in Nevada, Wisconsin, Tennessee, New York, and California.
These areas, both coastal and inland, not only provide plenty of transmission infrastructure, but also space to build new generating facilities. Wind farms, solar farms, or even wave power facilities could be placed near many of the above locations. Once constructed, these new facilities would already have access to the infrastructure necessary to transmit the energy they produce.
Innovation 2: Improve Flow Control
To repurpose infrastructure for increased energy transmission, improved flow control on transmission lines is essential. Just as air systems are equipped with dampers that are opened or closed to direct air flow, electric power transmission lines should be equipped with current balancing modules that enable current flow.
Today, current flow across power lines is a function of line length and conductor spacing, type, and size (American wire gauge). In the future, load balancing modules should be installed so that conductor size is the factor that limits current flow.
With improved flow control, transmission lines with previously limited capacity will have the increased capacity necessary to meet the needs of new generating facilities. This will improve the grid’s ability to transfer energy from both centralized and distributed renewable energy facilities.
Innovation 3: Convert to Electric Warehouses with Stored Energy
To meet the increased electric energy demand associated with electrification of homes and other goals outlined in the IRA, electric utilities should convert neighborhood substations to electric warehouses that include energy storage. Electric warehouses are virtual transmission facilities that allow additional load to be supplied from batteries or other forms of energy storage, rather than by building additional transmission lines or transformers.
Electric warehouses need to include game changing technology. Large batteries are an interim step. Soon, hydrogen-fueled turbine generators equipped with hydrogen reforming technology will be installed at electric warehouses. When excess energy is available, water molecules will be split, and reformed hydrogen will be stored onsite or offsite until it is needed for energy production.
More Innovations for the 4Ge Power Grid
Additional innovations will be needed to transition today’s electric power grid into the fourth generation (4Ge) grid. Some of those innovations include:
Renewable energy control modules that utilize differentially integrated controls to store or release energy from electric warehouses when frequency excursions occur.
Distribution line conditioning modules that maintain customer voltage at 120 volts +/-1% during peak load, light load, and reverse power conditions.
Differentially integrated electric vehicle (EV) battery chargers that store or release energy from EV batteries to provide grid support when system upsets occur.
Load sequence technology, installed in residences, that use microprocessors to monitor and control energy flow based on customer preferences, energy costs, and system conditions.
Innovate to Create the Next Generation Grid
Today’s electric power transmission systems can be compared to a Ford Model A: better than the Model T, but nowhere near a 2022 Ford Mustang Mach-E. Other industries have advanced well beyond their first few generations of products; it’s time for the electric utility industry to do the same. By implementing the innovations outlined above, utilities can work towards creating the next generation electric power system.
Do you have innovative ideas for the electric power grid? Contact us to continue the discussion or ask any questions. We’re always excited to talk innovation with other industry professionals!
This article was written in collaboration with Prescient's Lead Editor Alyssa Sleva-Horine.