Photo by Jeff Postelwait.
Monopole power transmission equipment by Jiangsu SHEMAR Power Co. on the IEEE PES T&D show floor.

Collaboration Remains Key for Utility Industry, say IEEE Attendees

May 15, 2024
Industry business models, new regulation and improving T&D technologies are all parts of the puzzle.

As electricity demand climbs ever higher, so do the demands placed on the power grid, and the electric utility industry will need to muster all its resources — particularly collaboration and technology — to keep the power that makes modern life possible flowing.

At the IEEE Power Engineering Society’s Transmission & Distribution Conference & Exposition in Anaheim, Calif. last week, many speakers and attendees stressed the difficulty of getting a new transmission project off the ground in North America.

On the show floor, which was open from May 6-9 at the Anaheim Convention Center, attendees from T&D World connected with technology providers and engineers to talk about what solutions might address the pain points the industry is feeling at the moment.

Hitachi Energy Executive Vice President, Head of North America Anthony Allard, said we have the transmission and distribution technology to deliver the kind of changes the power grid needs, but economics, regulation and supply chain issues often stand in the way. Allard called for better pricing signals to help guide the market.

“Development in the USA is mostly handled on a project-by-project basis. In Europe, for example, TenneT bundled together six transmission projects using a standardized design,” Allard said.

This decreases risk while creating savings, he said, adding that he hopes such a model could be tried successfully in the US.

Allard said Hitachi Energy has spoken with members of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission about the concept. A regulatory regime more friendly to new transmission construction would be helpful, as private-sector capital does not often see power lines as a good investment.

High voltage direct current (HVDC) or ultra-high voltage direct current (UHVDC) could potentially be areas of growth in North America, but basic obstacles remain, such as supply chain and the skilled engineering workforce such construction would require.

“This technology is now 70 years old, so we know it works, and we are seeing a worldwide acceleration in HVDC investment,” he said, adding that one of the primary drivers for this is the growing use of renewable energy.

In addition to bringing power from far-flung wind farms to load centers, HVDC offers advantages such as flexibility of siting, low line loss, and the ability to run underwater or underground, he said.

At a panel session alongside Allard, Fermin Fontanes, Executive Director of the Puerto Rico Public-Private Partnerships Authority said he believes another trend that could catch on is more collaboration between the public and private sectors.

“We are moving from a self-regulated monopoly to private companies in Puerto Rico, which is driving an energy industry transformation,” Fontanes said.

While it is true that the island territory’s reconstruction of its power grid began as a result of necessity — taking place in the wake of damaging hurricanes — public-private partnerships tie revenue to performance and has been used successfully in Puerto Rico since 2021. That was the year the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority was replaced by LUMA Energy — a joint venture of Quanta Services and Canada’s ATCO.

Under such a system, utilities can consider what technological upgrades are best for the consumer without worrying about the impact on rates.

“You can concentrate on what is best for the system,” Fontanes said. "The P3 model was a response to the hurricanes, but I think it will be a success.”

Supply chain woes and years-long wait times for the delivery of certain T&D products remain a big problem for the industry.

Darcy Immerman, Senior Vice President, Strategy & Growth for NORESCO, said before she left for the conference, she was quoted a 41 month wait time for a transformer.

Hearing this, one audience member said to another “that’s a pretty good time for me.”

The continued growth and impact of renewable energy, as well as electric vehicle and fleet adoption, are conspiring to create some engineering headaches that grow with the speed of their adoption. In one session, scientists with the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory spelled it out: North America’s grids are going to have to gain the ability to store massive amounts of electricity.

Jeremy Twitchell, an energy research analyst at PNNL and a leader for its energy storage program, said long-duration energy storage, which is usually defined at longer than 12 hours of storage, will be needed in the hundreds of gigawatts.

We currently have less than 40 MW capacity, which is mostly tied up in pumped-storage hydropower — a technology limited by geology and location. The shortfall between what we have and what we need is so steep that utilities won’t be able to issue flex warnings or invest in energy efficiency enough to overcome it, nor can enough power plants be built in a short enough time. However, Twitchell said he remains optimistic.

“We will absolutely see long-duration energy storage. It’s not just something that would be nice to have. We will have it because we need it, and the technology is there,” Twitchell said.

Most battery energy storage today is lithium ion, which is a technology he said was developed for consumer electronics like cell phones and children’s toys. LDES lacks a major market driver outside of the electric power industry because only this industry is looking for a battery that can store huge amounts of power at low density in a large and heavy form factor. So, lithium ion remains the largest market share of battery storage because the market and regulators incentivize the qualities it has.

Another developing T&D technology brought up frequently at IEEE was SF6-free distribution and transmission gear. The California Air Resources Board has regulated sulfur hexafluoride emissions since 2011, including from switchgear, and the state is considering phasing out the powerful greenhouse gas’ use in gas-insulated equipment starting next year. The phase-out would require equipment owners to obtain an exemption to use any equipment that uses SF6, so this may explain why people in California were discussing it.

Some attendees and exhibitors told T&D World that SF6 is an excellent insulator, and as such, there are few technologies that can beat it. However, several manufacturing companies displayed their SF6-free switchgear and other machinery, including Schneider Electric, Eaton and G&W Electric.  

There were also several companies based internationally that were looking to expand into the North American T&D market. One of these was Jiangsu SHEMAR Power Co., which displayed massive HVDC transmission gear on the show floor, including monopole builds with a much smaller footprint than a conventional transmission pylon has.

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