GETs are hardware and software that increase the capacity, efficiency and/or reliability of the transmission grid. Dynamic Line Ratings determine the true, real-time capacity of power lines, which is almost always higher than the static line ratings used widely today. Advanced Power Flow Control allows operators to reroute power to lines with available capacity, increasing the total power delivered by the system. Topology Optimization identifies the best grid reconfigurations to reroute flow around bottlenecks, which helps avoid congestion constraints and costs.
Each of these technologies has a role to play in improving the electric grid and making better use of the grid we have, as well as future transmission infrastructure.
Renewable energy isn’t built in the same locations as 20th century fossil fuel generation. Most of the transmission system (about 70%) was built before 1990, when wind and solar were not major generation sources.
Today, interconnection queues are full of clean energy resources that are facing high upgrade costs for adequate transmission to reliably deliver electricity. GETs can greatly increase the transmission capacity of the grid, allowing these resources to plug in quickly and cost-effectively.
A recent study by the Brattle Group found that GETs could enable enough renewable energy in the United States to completely offset the emissions from 20 million cars. What’s more, GETs could do this in less than five years.
Long term decarbonization goals are important, but immediate carbon reductions have the most impact on the global “carbon budget.” Greenhouse gasses stay in the atmosphere for decades, so each year’s emissions have a compounding effect on total atmospheric warming.
GETs save money in several ways, primarily by decreasing congestion costs and enabling cheaper generation.
Electricity congestion costs customers in the U.S. more than $6 billion per year. These charges arise when a transmission line or other facility doesn’t have the capacity to deliver the cheapest electricity anymore, and more expensive generation closer to demand has to ramp up in its place. Congestion is passed on to customers in the form of higher electricity bills, necessary to compensate for more costly generation sources.
GETs also make more room on the grid for renewable energy, which doesn’t consume any fuel. This means that it is often the cheapest available generation, so using renewables instead of fossil fuels lowers consumer costs.
GETs can also avoid or delay more costly grid upgrades. For 100 years, the only way to increase grid capacity was to build new transmission lines or upgrade the wires to better conductors. Now, GETs are the cheapest and fastest way to increase transmission capacity, and these more expensive measures can be avoided or delayed in some cases. When new transmission lines are needed, GETs ensure that the lines are used to their full capacity, which increases the value of the large investment.
In the United States, electricity system asset owners generally have a return-on-equity business model. Electricity customers pay a flat percentage on top of the asset owner’s expenditures to build the grid, which makes the business profitable. This incentivizes asset owners to build big, expensive projects.
GETs projects are small and inexpensive by comparison. The return-on-equity for installing GETs is almost negligible, while the system-wide benefits are massive. This mismatch leads to very slow adoption of GETs in the U.S.
In the UK and Australia, where asset owners have performance-based incentives, GETs are seeing much faster adoption.
The Southwest Power Pool and California grids both reach around 90% renewable energy on spring days. Their interconnection queues are still full of new renewable energy projects that would take advantage of the sun and wind in these regions.
In the short term, GETs can free up capacity on these grids so that there is room for new renewables. The faster we reduce electricity emissions, the more we slow climate change. Other new demands on the grid are expected as buildings, transportation and industry decarbonize and electrify. America’s grid needs to be optimized to facilitate this clean energy transition.
New transmission lines will still be needed to move power from regions with good renewable energy resources to population centers, even if GETs are ubiquitous on the grid. But neither replaces the other. GETs can help get the most out of the new lines as well, so that the billion-dollar investments provide the most value to customers. If, after a major upgrade, GETs are no longer providing local value, they can be moved to a different part of the grid that is experiencing congestion.
The WATT Coalition believes that the most efficient way to increase the deployment of GETs in the U.S. is for the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to use its authority to establish performance-based incentives for the grid. WATT and Advanced Energy Economy proposed a shared-savings incentive, where the system-wide benefits of a particular GETs deployment would be assessed, and a transmission asset owner would receive a portion of that value back if they implement GETs.
For example, the 2021 Unlocking the Queue study found that a program of GETs deployments that cost $90 million could create savings of $175 million annually. Sharing those savings between the customer and a transmission asset owner would incentivize transmission owners to pursue the projects with the largest system benefit.
Interconnection queue reform is another area under FERC jurisdiction where GETs enable renewables. When a renewable developer proposes a project, the transmission asset owner tells the developer what system upgrades would be necessary to plug that project into the grid, what they would cost, and how long the upgrades would take. FERC can establish that renewable energy developers are allowed to request that GETs be studied in that process, to increase the speed and reduce the cost of upgrades.
In addition to interconnection processes, Regional Transmission Organizations (RTOs) regularly plan transmission system upgrades and expansions, and they should include GETs in their studies. This would not only identify high value GETs deployments but help ensure that the full system value of these technologies is realized through RTO markets and operations.
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has authority, granted by Congress in the Federal Power Act, to incentivize technology that improves grid efficiency. Technically, the U.S. Congress or state legislatures could pass legislation that explicitly creates the incentives, or Public Utility Commissions could make rules to mandate or incentivize GETs, but FERC has indicated that it is planning to act on Section 219(b)3 with a workshop on policy options on September 10, 2021. FERC action on incentives would be nationwide and is the fastest way to accelerate GETs deployment.
Many participants in the electricity industry have roles to play in increasing the use of GETs in the United States.
The Federal Power Act of 2005 empowered the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to support GETs. It reads: “In carrying out the Federal Power Act (16 U.S.C. 791a et seq.) and the Public Utility Regulatory Policies Act of 1978 (16 U.S.C. 2601 et seq.), the Commission shall encourage, as appropriate, the deployment of advanced transmission technologies.” The law defines “advanced transmission technologies” as “technology that increases the capacity, efficiency, or reliability of an existing or new transmission facility.”
From 2010 to 2015, American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) provided $3.4 billion to fund 99 projects under the Smart Grid Investment Grants (SGIG) program resulting in $8 billion in grid modernization. 228 utilities and other organizations participated, making huge progress towards digitizing America’s grid. However, only 13 projects under the Smart Grid Demonstration Program were applied on the transmission system, representing 6% of the total budget. These grants installed over 1,300 synchrophasors, which have improved grid operator situational awareness and helped prevent, and rapidly resolve, outages. There remains a significant opportunity to use cost-matching grants to modernize the transmission system.