SEPAPower Blog : Midwest Utilities and Policy Makers Talk Modernizing the Transmission Grid With and Without Wires

Midwest Utilities and Policy Makers Talk Modernizing the Transmission Grid With and Without Wires

By Mike Taylor

I was recently in Columbus, Ohio for a meeting of the Midwestern Governors Association (MGA) focused on Grid Modernization: Understanding Technology Advancements, an event that gave me two different, but definitely complementary views of the evolving future of our energy system. During a visit to American Electric Power’s (AEP) A. Ray King Transmission Training Center, I saw firsthand the kind of state-of-the-art facility that will be needed to train utility line personnel to deploy and maintain the equipment that will be critical to grid modernization.

Then, as a speaker on an energy storage panel, I heard a progress report on how one Midwestern utility is testing storage technology, and shared the research the Smart Electric Power Alliance (SEPA) is doing on distributed energy resources (DERs) as “non-wire” alternatives for grid support.

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MGA meeting attendees visit AEP's A. Ray King Transmission Training Center. (Photo by Mike Taylor)

The connection here is the truly central role transmission and distribution networks play in our electricity system. The poles, towers, wires, substations and transformers that move electricity from point of generation to point of use -- our homes and businesses -- are possibly the most visible but also the most overlooked components of the system. Similar to the roads we drive on, transmission and distribution lines only make news when they aren’t working or when they need to be updated or replaced.

Watch a video on AEP’ training center here.

As with roads and bridges, parts of the transmission system can be 50-60 years old. Modernizing and expanding the system have become prime imperatives, particularly to allow for the two-way power flows from distributed resources such as solar and storage.

In addition to its transmission training facility, AEP is advancing grid technology with its new BOLD -- short for Breakthrough Overhead Line Design -- transmission tower, which we saw at the center. An Ohio-based utility holding company serving millions of customers in the Midwest and south-central United States, AEP created the new crossbow-shaped tower to carry more electricity in a smaller, more aesthetically pleasing footprint, using novel wire arrangements and engineering efficiencies.

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SEPA's Mike Taylor checks out one of AEP's new BOLD transmission towers on a site visit in Ohio. (Photo by Mike Taylor)

But, the evolving energy landscape in the Midwest -- and across the country -- is also driving a need for unconventional transmission solutions. The combination of coal and nuclear plants closing, lower and changing consumer demand curves, and the build-out of utility-scale solar and wind projects has already begun to shift transmission planning processes. From 2010-2015, wind and solar made up more than 44 percent of new electricity generation capacity built in the United States (natural gas was 42 percent), according to data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration. State lawmakers and regulators at the MGA meeting are increasingly aware that the policies they enact and implement must keep up with the technology to create a smarter, more modern grid.

Non-wire technologies and resources are part of this bigger picture on grid modernization -- and their capabilities and use were a key theme of the energy storage panel I took part in. They are also a core part of SEPA’s Beyond the Meter initiative looking at the potential grid support capabilities of DERs.

Download the free executive summary of SEPA’s “DER Capabilities Guide” here.

The panel -- which included speakers from Indianapolis Power & Light (IPL), the Regulatory Assistance Project and Ohio State University -- took a broad view of storage, going beyond batteries. For example, thermal storage, leveraging the capabilities of water heaters or precooling a home ahead of a hot afternoon, coupled with demand management programs, can be used to lower congestion at specific points on the grid.

These programs go well beyond classic air conditioning cycling programs to lower system peak demand on hot summer days. Battery storage or electric vehicles can work in much the same way -- charging off-peak, avoiding critical peaks, or absorbing excess solar generation. Further, if they can be strategically deployed to take advantage of their value in specific locations, they become a much more powerful tool for delaying wires upgrades.

Check out SEPA’s new report on assessing the locational value of DERs here.

Lin Franks from IPL discussed the utility’s new 20 MW battery project, which provides frequency response to the grid and is the first such facility in the Midcontinent Independent System Operator (MISO) region. (Lin said that IPL’s parent company, AES, actually developed a battery project in the early 20th century, but no one remembers what it was used for.)

MISO doesn’t yet have an established ancillary services market in which batteries could provide grid support, as they can in the Mid-Atlantic and Midwestern region covered by PJM Interconnection. The IPL project is being used to demonstrate and build expertise on the technical and operational capabilities of storage, rather than for specific economic returns. One key issue still to be decided is under what conditions regulated utilities will own batteries or partner with technology providers on projects in the emerging storage market. Such markets naturally contain economic risks, and how these risks will be allocated is an issue regulators need to assess.

In the end, the key for utilities and regulators is to begin integrating these non-wire options into transmission and distribution planning processes. Whether it is demand response or battery storage, being aware of these nontraditional alternatives is the first step. The second is to integrate them into utility or system operator cost and performance comparisons.

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SEPA's DER capabilities matrix shows the potential of distributed resources to provide grid support services. (Source: "Distributed Energy Resource Capabilities Guide."

While neither of these strategies is particularly ground-breaking, changing decades-old processes takes time. New approaches to solution deployment may also be needed. For example, the lead times for building up a fleet of thermostats or deploying large-scale batteries are likely different -- and shorter -- than traditional, multi-year time frames for deploying new power plants or transmission or distribution lines.

Transmission lines are not cheap, and lowering the risks related to making big capital investments in a rapidly changing environment is a prudent course of action. Non-wire options will not universally replace the need for new wires -- or totally mitigate the associated financial risks -- but they can provide flexible options for saving money and diversifying resources in the emerging modern electric grid.

Mike Taylor is SEPA’s Principal of Knowledge and Interim Director of Communications. He can be reached at mtaylor@sepapower.org.

SEPA has released three reports thus far in its Beyond the Meter series; all are available on the SEPA website here.


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