Using advanced conductors can reduce costs and land impacts, but existing policies don’t support change

Shifting to carbon-free electricity will require a massive expansion of transmission capacity–by some estimates, two to three times the existing system. Despite the need to quickly build new high-capacity interstate transmission lines to connect renewable resources to customers, lines are stalled due to decentralized siting and permitting processes. However, there are ways to increase capacity beyond focusing on new transmission lines. In fact, if upgraded with the latest technology, existing lines could move more power without being subjected to cumbersome permitting processes. 

Reconductoring, or changing out the existing wires for new “advanced” conductors, is a promising but underutilized approach. Compared to traditional conductors (electricity wires), advanced conductors have a stronger core material and more conductive aluminum configuration that enables the lines to carry much more current without increasing the weight or diameter of the line. Using existing towers but swapping out the wires allows the system to carry twice the power. Reconductoring projects also use or expand an existing right-of-way (ROW), facing streamlined regulatory pathways that allow them to avoid the years of delay that many new transmission line projects face. Using existing ROWs minimizes landowner objections and concerns about environmental impacts and maximizes the usage of existing infrastructure and previous investments.  

On March 15, Grid Strategies LLC, a power sector consulting firm, published a report on advanced conductors for the American Council on Renewable Energy (ACORE). The report provides a technical analysis of the potential for advanced conductors and a series of policy recommendations. It found that reconductoring and rebuilding existing transmission pathways using advanced conductors could save consumers at least $140 billion over the next decade. This would also  help accelerate decarbonization efforts by increasing the amount of renewable energy that the existing grid can deliver to customers. 

Regulatory and institutional processes are set up to assume the existing technology is good enough and the world will continue to be much the same. But new grid technology is vastly more efficient, the climate is rapidly warming, and renewables are swiftly becoming the most affordable source of power–if only we had a modern grid to deliver them. Three of the policy recommendations presented by the report address these challenges head-on:

  • “Transmission planners and owners should integrate advanced conductor evaluations into all transmission expansion and interconnection plans and studies.”
  • Transmission planners and owners should work with regulators “to shift their evaluations from ‘least cost’ to ‘maximum net benefits’ when reviewing technology options for long-term plans,” especially for technologies that represent a fraction of project costs and have additional benefits.
  • The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission should “require transmission planners to move to a futures-based planning process to optimize net value by looking to likely future scenarios and where additional renewable energy generation resources will likely be connected to the grid.” 

These recommendations show how a shift in policy could move us to rapidly incorporate the latest technologies, ultimately resulting in lower prices, fewer impacts on landowners, and more clean energy supply.

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