Transmission Line Conductor Design Comes of Age

June 1, 2003
Deregulation and competition have changed power flows across transmission networks significantly. Meanwhile, demand for electricity continues to grow,

Deregulation and competition have changed power flows across transmission networks significantly. Meanwhile, demand for electricity continues to grow, as do the increasing challenges of building new transmission circuits. As a result, utilities need innovative ways to increase circuit capacities to reduce congestion and maintain reliability.

National Grid is monitoring transmission conductor technologies with the intent of testing and deploying innovative conductor technologies within the United States over the next few years. In the UK, National Grid has been using conductor replacement as a means of increasing circuit capacity since the mid 1980s, most recently involving the high-temperature, low-sag “Gap-type” conductor. As a first step in developing a global conductor deployment strategy, National Grid embarked on an overall assessment of overhead transmission line conductor technologies, examining innovative and emerging technologies.

Conventional Conductors

The reality is that there is no single “wonder material.” As such, the vast majority of overhead line conductors are nonhomogeneous (made up of more than one material). Typically, this involves a high-strength core material surrounded by a high-conductivity material. The most common conductor type is the aluminum conductor steel reinforced (ACSR), which has been in use for more than 80 years. By varying the relative cross-sectional areas of steel and aluminum, the conductor can be made stronger at the expense of conductivity (for areas with high ice loads, for example), or it can be made more conductive at the expense of strength where it's not required.

More recently, in the last 15 to 20 years, the homogeneous all-aluminum alloy conductor (AAAC) has become quite popular, especially for National Grid in the UK where it is now the standard conductor type employed for new and refurbished lines. Conductors made up of this alloy (a heat treatable aluminum-magnesium-silicon alloy) are, for the same diameter as an ACSR, stronger, lighter and more conductive, although they are a little more expensive and have a higher expansion coefficient. However, their high strength-to-weight ratio allows them to be strung to much lower initial sags, which allows higher operating temperatures. The resulting tension levels are relatively high, which could result in increased vibration and early fatigue of the conductors. In the UK, with favorable terrain, wind conditions and dampers, these tensions are acceptable and have allowed National Grid to increase the capacities of some lines by up to 50%.

For the purpose of this article, the three materials mentioned so far — steel, aluminum and aluminum alloy — are considered to be the materials from which conventional conductors are made. The ACSR and AAAC are two examples of such conductors. Other combinations available include aluminum conductor alloy reinforced (ACAR), aluminum alloy conductor steel reinforced (AACSR) and the less common all-aluminum conductor (AAC).

Conductors of these materials also are available in other forms, such as compacted conductors, where the strands are shaped so as not to leave any voids within the conductor's cross section (a standard conductor uses round strands), increasing the amount of conducting material without increasing the diameter. These conductors are designated trapezoidal-wire (TW) or, for example, ACSR/TW and AACSR/TW. Other shaped conductors are available that have noncircular cross sections designed to minimize the effects of wind-induced motions and vibrations.

High-Temperature Conductors

Research in Japan in the 1960s produced a series of aluminum-zirconium alloys that resisted the annealing effects of high temperatures. These alloys can retain their strength at temperatures up to 230°C (446°F). The most common of these alloys — TAl, ZTAl and XTAl — are the basis of a variety of high-temperature conductors.

The thermal expansion coefficients of all the conventional steel-cored conductors are governed by both materials together, resulting in a value between that of the steel and that of the aluminum. This behavior relies on the fact that both components are carrying mechanical stress.

However, because the expansion coefficient of aluminum is twice that of steel, stress will be increasingly transferred to the steel core as the conductor's temperature rises. Eventually the core bears all the stress in the conductor. From this point on, the conductor as a whole essentially takes on the expansion coefficient of the core. For a typical 54/7 ACSR (54 aluminum strands, 7 steel) this transition point (also known as the “knee-point”) occurs around 100°C (212°F).

For lines built to accommodate relatively large sags, the T-aluminum conductor, steel reinforced (TACSR) conductor was developed. (This is essentially identical to ACSR but uses the heat-resistant aluminum alloy designated TAl). Because this conductor can be used at high temperatures with no strength loss, advantage can be taken of the low-sag behavior above the knee-point.

If a conductor could be designed with a core that exhibited a lower expansion coefficient than steel, or that exhibited a lower knee-point temperature, more advantage could be taken of the high-temperature alloys. A conductor that exhibits both of these properties uses Invar, an alloy of iron and nickel. Invar has an expansion coefficient about one-third of steel (2.8 microstrain per Kelvin up to 100°C, and 3.6 over 100°C, as opposed to 11.5 for steel). T-aluminum conductor Invar reinforced (TACIR) is capable of operation up to 150°C (302°F), with ZTACIR and XTACIR capable of 210°C (410°F) and 230°C (446°F), respectively.

Further, the transition temperature, although dependent on many factors, is typically lower than that for an ACSR, allowing use of the high temperatures within lower sag limits than required for the TACSR conductors. One disadvantage of this conductor is that Invar is considerably weaker than steel. Therefore, for high-strength applications (to resist ice loading, for example), the core needs to make up a greater proportion of the conductor's area, reducing or even negating the high-temperature benefits. As a result, the ACIR-type conductors are used in favorable areas in Japan and Asia, but are not commonly used in the United States or Europe.

There will still be instances, however, where insufficient clearance is available to take full advantage of the transitional behavior of the ACIR conductors. A conductor more suitable for uprating purposes would exhibit a knee-point at much lower temperatures. Two conductors are available that exhibit this behavior: the Gap-type conductor and a variant of the ACSR that uses fully annealed aluminum.

Developed in Japan during the 1970s, Gap-type ZT-aluminum conductor steel reinforced (GZTACSR) uses heat-resistant aluminum over a steel core. It has been used in Japan, Saudi Arabia and Malaysia, and is being extensively implemented by National Grid in the UK. The principle of the Gap-type conductor is that it can be tensioned on the steel core alone during erection. A small annular Gap exists between a high-strength steel core and the first layer of trapezoidal-shaped aluminum strands, which allows this to be achieved. The result is a conductor with a knee-point at the erection temperature. Above this, thermal expansion is that of steel (11.5 microstrain per Kelvin), while below it is that of a comparable ACSR (approximately 18). This construction allows for low-sag properties above the erection temperature and good strength below it as the aluminum alloy can take up significant load.

For example, the application of GZTACSR by National Grid in the UK allowed a 90°C (194°F) rated 570 mm2 AAAC to be replaced with a 620 mm2 GZTACSR (Matthew). The Gap-type conductor, being of compacted construction, actually had a smaller diameter than the AAAC, despite having a larger nominal area. The low-sag properties allowed a rated temperature of 170°C (338°F) and gave a 30% increase in rating for the same sag.

The principal drawback of the Gap-type conductor is its complex installation procedure, which requires destranding the aluminum alloy to properly install on the joints. There is also the need for “semi-strain” assemblies for long line sections (typically every five spans). Experience in the UK has shown that a Gap-type conductor requires about 25% more time to install than an ACSR.

A semi-strain assembly is, in essence, a pair of back-to-back compression anchors at the bottom of a suspension insulator set. It is needed to avoid potential problems caused by the friction that developes between the steel core and the aluminum layers when using running blocks. This helps to prevent the steel core from hanging up within the conductor.

During 1999 and 2000, in the UK, National Grid installed 8 km (single circuit) of Matthew GZTACSR. Later this year and continuing through to next year, National Grid will be refurbishing a 60 km (37-mile) double-circuit (120 circuit-km) route in the UK with Matthew.

A different conductor of a more standard construction is aluminum conductor steel supported (ACSS), formerly known as SSAC. Introduced in the 1980s, this conductor uses fully annealed aluminum around a steel core. The steel core provides the entire conductor support. The aluminum strands are “dead soft,” thus the conductor may be operated at temperatures in excess of 200°C without loss of strength. The maximum operating temperature of the conductor is limited by the coating used on the steel core. Conventional galvanized coatings deteriorate rapidly at temperatures above 245°C (473°F). If a zinc-5% aluminum mischmetal alloy coated steel core is used, temperatures of 250°C are possible.

Since the fully annealed aluminum cannot support significant stress, the conductor has a thermal expansion similar to that of steel. Tension in the aluminum strands is normally low. This helps to improve the conductor's self-damping characteristics and helps to reduce the need for dampers.

For some applications there will be concern over the lack of strength in the aluminum, as well as the possibility of damage to the relatively soft outer layers. However, ACSS is available as ACSS/TW, improving its strength. ACSS requires special care when installing. The soft annealed aluminum wires can be easily damaged and “bird-caging” can occur. As with the other high-temperature conductors, the heat requires the use of special suspension clamps, high-temperature deadends, and high-temperature splices to avoid hardware damage.

Emerging Conductor Technologies

Presently, all the emerging designs have one thing in common — the use of composite material technology.

Aluminum conductor carbon fiber reinforced (ACFR) from Japan makes use of the very-low-expansion coefficient of carbon fiber, resulting in a conductor with a lower knee-point of around 70°C (158°F). The core is a resin-matrix composite containing carbon fiber. This composite is capable of withstanding temperatures up to 150°C. The ACFR is about 30% lighter and has an expansion coefficient (above the knee-point) that is 8% that of an ACSR of the same stranding, giving a rating increase of around 50% with no structural work required.

Meanwhile, in the United States, 3M has developed the Aluminum Conductor Composite Reinforced (ACCR). The core is an aluminum-matrix composite containing alumina fibers, with the outer layers made from a heat-resistant aluminum alloy. As with the ACFR, the low-expansion coefficient of the core contributes to a fairly low knee-point, allowing the conductor to make full use of the heat resistant alloy within existing sag constraints. Depending on the application, rating increases between 50% and 200% are possible as the conductor can be rated up to 230°C.

Also in the United States, two more designs based on glass-fiber composites are emerging. Composite Technology Corp. (CTC; Irvine, California, U.S.) calls it the aluminum conductor composite core (ACCC), and W. Brandt Goldsworthy and Associates (Torrance, California) are developing composite reinforced aluminum conductor (CRAC). These conductors are expected to offer between 40% and 100% increases in ratings.

Over the next few years, National Grid plans to install ACSS and the Gap conductor technology within its U.S. transmission system. Even a test span of one or more of the new composite conductors is being considered.

Art J. Peterson Jr. is a senior engineer in National Grid's transmission line engineering and project management department in Syracuse, New York. Peterson received a BS degree in physics from Le Moyne College in Syracuse; a MS degree in physics from Clarkson University in Potsdam, New York; a M.Eng. degree in nuclear engineering from Pennsylvania State University in State College, Pennsylvania; and a Ph.D. in organization and management from Capella University in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He has 20 years of experience in electric generation and transmission.
[email protected]

Sven Hoffmann is the circuits forward policy team leader in National Grid's asset strategy group in Coventry, United Kingdom. Hoffmann has a bachelor's in engineering degree from the University of Birmingham in England. He is a chartered engineer with the Institution of Electrical Engineers, and the UK Regular Member for CIGR… Study Committee B2. Hoffmann has been working at National Grid, specializing in thermal and mechanical aspects of overhead lines for eight years.
[email protected]

About National Grid

National Grid USA is a subsidiary of National Grid Transco, an international energy-delivery business with principal activities in the regulated electric and gas industries. National Grid is the largest transmission business in the northeast United States, as well as one of the 10 largest electric utilities in the United States. National Grid achieved this by combining New England Electric System, Eastern Utilities Associates and Niagara Mohawk between March 2000 and January 2002. Its electricity-delivery network includes 9000 miles (14,484 km) of transmission lines and 72,000 miles (115,872 km) of distribution lines.

National Grid UK is the owner, operator and developer of the high-voltage electricity transmission network in England and Wales, comprising approximately 9000 circuit-miles of overhead line and 600 circuit-miles of underground cable at 275 and 400 kV, connecting more than 300 substations.

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