To Ease Energy Transmission Gridlock, States Look to Grid-Enhancing Technologies

Advanced solutions can help meet demand, increase renewable energy use, and save ratepayers money

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To Ease Energy Transmission Gridlock, States Look to Grid-Enhancing Technologies
A transmission tower with power lines extending from it rises above a field of yellow and red flowers, with cloudy skies overhead.
The U.S. electric grid is experiencing significant congestion issues. The implementation of grid-enhancing technologies would help alleviate that.
Brandon Bell

How can the U.S. squeeze the most energy out of its electric grid? That’s one of the challenges transmission operators face today. The grid is strained by increasing demand from economic growth and electric vehicles, disruptions due to severe weather events, and more. The result is a congested transmission system that cannot accommodate the flow of low-cost electricity—often generated from renewables such as solar and wind—and must instead tap more-expensive sources. This congestion increased consumers’ bills by an estimated $20.8 billion in 2022.

Grid-enhancing technologies (GETs) are a promising near-term solution to this problem, and one that could help ease a backlog of an estimated 2,600 gigawatts of power—95% of which is from solar, wind, or battery projects—that is ready to flow to consumers. So far in 2024, lawmakers in at least 10 states have considered different policy options to evaluate and promote GET use, including study bills, utility planning requirements, and incentives.

What are GETs?

GETs are a suite of software and hardware technologies that boost the ability of transmission lines to carry more power and are typically deployed faster and at a lower cost than traditional options, such as new lines and substations. Some common GETs are:

  • Dynamic Line Ratings (DLR): Transmission lines have a "rating" that sets the maximum electricity flows allowed on a line. DLR is a methodology that uses sensors to calculate the rating based on real-time weather conditions. This allows grid operators to safely boost the rating—and therefore the line capacity—when conditions allow, rather than using the more conservative static rating.
  • Advanced Power Flow Control (APFC): APFCs are devices that allow grid operators to direct electricity flows to avoid congested areas of the grid. The devices are modular and can be quickly deployed when and where needed to balance power flows.
  • Topology Optimization (TO): TO is a software technology that allows grid operators to reroute power flows to avoid congested areas, akin to Google Maps finding driving routes to avoid traffic.

One analysis showed that DLRs yield average increases in transmission capacity of more than 33% in summer and 19% in winter. These boosts mean that the technologies can often pay for themselves within six months of becoming fully operational because they reduce congestion and allow for uptake of lower-cost, renewable energy. This increase in efficiency could save consumers an estimated $2 billion to $8 billion annually. DLRs can also have significant safety and reliability benefits because they give utilities accurate readings of real-time conditions of lines and how much electricity they can carry.

Notably, GETs can also make way on the grid for renewable energy projects to come online. In fact, one study found that a suite of GET projects across five states could help connect 6.6 gigawatts of new renewable energy to the grid; this could lead to a corresponding drop in fossil fuel emissions of 3.5% in 2027, equivalent to roughly 12 million tons of CO2.

A hilly area covered in green grass and trees with electric transmission towers in the background. In the foreground, a close-up of a panel-like sensor attached to a transmission tower.
Dynamic line rating devices, like the one attached to this tower, collect critical transmission line information in real time to detect risks, assess conductor health, and enhance line capacity.
Linevision

State policy approaches

Despite their many benefits, GETs have not yet been broadly adopted by U.S. grid operators, due in part to their relative newness and also to utility incentive structures that favor large capital projects over improved operations and efficiency.

But the new activity in states is encouraging. State GET policy efforts have included studies to determine the potential of these technologies, requirements for incorporating them in utility planning, and incentives to accelerate their deployment.

Study bills

Lawmakers in Connecticut, Maine, and Maryland have looked to task state agencies or regulatory authorities with investigating the use of GETs—reports that would guide policy decisions. In Maine, a recently passed law (SP 257/LD 589) allows those findings to inform utility rate-making and grid planning proceedings before the Maine Public Utilities Commission, the state’s regulatory oversight authority.  

Utility planning requirements

Most states direct some or all utilities to regularly develop integrated resource plans (IRPs) to outline new investments in energy infrastructure, generation, and transmission. This year, California, Minnesota, South Carolina, Utah, and Virginia have either passed or reviewed legislation to require utilities to evaluate GETs within those IRPs or related proceedings. The goal is to encourage utilities to consistently and comprehensively consider alternative and more cost-effective ways to meet certain near-term transmission needs, rather than rely exclusively on the more expensive and time-consuming permitting and construction of traditional infrastructure. Including these analyses within IRPs, which are typically approved by state regulators, gives utilities a clearer path to recovering costs.

Notably, Minnesota’s proposed legislation takes a targeted approach to addressing congestion with GETs: Utilities must identify areas of existing or anticipated congestion, assess the feasibility and cost of using GETs to mitigate those trouble spots, and—if cost-effective—plan to implement the technologies.

A large white statehouse and a long, wide set of concrete stairs leading up to it rise over a hillside with a garden of red tulips blooming. The sky is cloudless and deep blue.
Tulips bloom in front of the Virginia State Capitol building. Governor Glenn Youngkin (R) signed into law a requirement that utilities assess the potential use of grid-enhancing technologies in their integrated resource plans.
DoxaDigital Getty Images

Incentives

Legislators in Massachusetts and New York have proposed legislation to require utilities to consider GETs in IRPs; those bills also include performance-based incentive mechanisms to further encourage the use of these and related technologies. This approach, which requires regulator approval, would give utilities additional motivation to implement GETs by allowing utilities to financially benefit from the cost-effective deployment of these technologies. While specific parameters for determining effectiveness would need to be developed, one option could be for a utility to retain a portion of the savings generated by reducing grid congestion, as has been recently proposed in federal legislation.

Although not a replacement for much-needed investment in new transmission wires, GETs and related technologies can play an important role in creating a modern, reliable grid. Lawmakers in a handful of states are beginning to encourage the use of these cost-effective strategies to reduce congested grid systems. As more states take action, ratepayers nationwide will benefit.

Yaron Miller is a senior manager and Maureen Quinlan is a senior officer with The Pew Charitable Trusts’ energy modernization project.

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