Innovators gather in DC this week to discuss how to modernize the U.S. electric grid in the face of a changing electricity sector.

The ARPA-E Energy Innovation Summit kicks off today in Washington DC and will highlight technologies that could fundamentally alter how the nation generates, uses, and stores electricity. In the face of a booming solar industry, stagnating residential demand, and federal policy that seems to choke off a future for new coal power plants, these technologies could answer the question of how today’s utilities can successfully adapt. But which utilities will be early adopters?

Two reports released over the past 6 months show how grid operators with the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) and Southern Company have been able to use networks of innovative power flow control technologies to relieve stress on the nation’s electricity grid. Developed by a start-up company called Smart Wires, these devices will be featured in this week’s ARPA-E Summit Showcase. According to Smart Wires CEO Jim Davis:

The U.S. electric grid has served us extremely well for more than a century. But, now the grid is getting old and is in need of modernization through a technology upgrade if it wants to maintain reliability and adapt to the evolving market.

Smart Wires was one of the first energy technology development efforts to receive funding under the Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy (ARPA-E) Green Electricity Network Integration (GENI) Program. Initially created in 2007 when President George W. Bush signed into law The America COMPETES Act, ARPA-E received its first $400 million in appropriated funds in 2009. The GENI Program was created two years later to support technologies that could “modernize the way electricity is transmitted in the United States through advances in hardware and software.”

Today, the program boasts a portfolio of 15 projects within the 360 that ARPA-E has funded since its inception. These projects include innovations spanning from cloud computing for the grid to three power flow control technologies. The latter include three projects - a device being developed at Michigan State University that could replace expensive transformers, technology that could allow for dynamic voltage and power flow control from a start-up called Varentec, and Smart Wires’ initial distributed power flow control device.

According to ARPA-E, if successful, power-flow control devices being developed by Smart Wires could lead to a 30% improvement in the utilization of existing transmission grid infrastructure at less than half the price of the alternative transmission line upgrades. Given the more than 200,000 miles of high-voltage transmission lines that have been strung across the continental United States over the past century, such savings would be no small matter. As a result, ARPA-E awarded the company a $4 million GENI grant in 2012 to support a two-year pilot project.

For this project, Smart Wires partnered with the federally-owned Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA). Originally created by congressional charter in 1933 to support the Tennessee Valley in the midst of the Great Depression, the TVA now provides electricity to approximately 9 million people across most of Tennessee as well as sections of Alabama, Mississippi, Kentucky, Georgia, North Carolina, and Virginia.

In 2012, the TVA installed 100 of Smart Wires’ PowerLine Guardian devices and an associated wireless mesh communications network on a 7.5-mile segment of the TVA Knox-Douglas 161-kilovolt (kV) transmission line. The network was attached directly to the transmission line in order to allow grid operators to more closely monitor the status of the transmission line, push power away from the heavily loaded Knox-Douglas line onto parallel lines with more available capacity, and respond to any interruptions or events that threatened the grid’s reliability.

This project not only proved successful, but also served as a launch pad for a second project (launched without a new ARPA-E grant). In March 2013, Smart Wires and Southern Company successfully completed the installation of 33 PowerLine Guardian units on two 115-kW transmission lines (the Grady-Moreland and Grady-West End). They have subsequently doubled the system’s size to include 66 units.

The technological leap seen with the TVA and Southern Company projects is part of a larger change in a U.S. electric utility model that has changed little—save in scale—since Thomas Edison first invented the light bulb in 1879. As Robert Catell put it in 2010 at a smart grid event in New York City at NYU:

"If Alexander Graham Bell returned to Earth today, the progress in telecommunications over the last 125 years would be mystifying. If Thomas Edison came back today, not only would he recognize our electricity system, he could probably fix it [when problems arise].”

While similar to the original design, today’s power grid is undeniably massive. Besides high-voltage transmission lines and the millions of miles of distribution lines connecting about 19,023 individual generators and just under 7,000 operational power plants to homes and business in the continental United States, the system's approximately 3,200 utilities play an integral part in supplying electricity to more than 315 million people.

These utilities have thrived in an era of increasing demand, expanding their reach and realizing significant profits while relying on large, centralized power plants; but the growth of rooftop solar panels and other distributed energy sources is putting pressure on the utilities and their business models.

In response to the changing tide, several industry giants are resisting change by actively pushing policies that would limit – among other things – the widespread inclusion of distributed solar in the grid. Others are taking a wait-and-see attitude. But many utilities have chosen to adapt through technology-focused approaches or by redesigning their business strategies and policies.

In addition to the Smart Wires projects at TVA and Southern Company, Duke Energy and Exelon are investing directly in distributed solar. In Hawaii, with its more than 51,000 rooftop PV systems, major utilities including the Hawaiian Electricity Company are focusing on increasing neighbourhood circuit thresholds to make sure that they can handle the additional stress.

Internationally, E.ON has announced an aggressive plan to embrace renewables, distributed networks, and a service-based business model while spinning off its nuclear, oil, coal, and natural gas operations. According to the company’s CEO Johannes Teyssen “We are convinced that it's necessary to respond to dramatically altered global energy markets.

The ARPA-E Energy Innovation Summit will run from February 9-11, 2015 in Washington, DC. The Summit will include discussions of innovations that could impact the entire energy system (not just electricity).

Photo Credit:

  1. Photo of Secretary of Energy Moniz at 2014 ARPA-E Energy Innovation Summit courtesy of the U.S. Government.
  2. Photo of transmission lines with ARPA-E sponsored Smart Wires PowerLine Guardian devices by Smart Wires and used with permission.
  3. Photo of TVA lineman installing PowerLine Guardian device by Smart Wires and used with permission.
  4. Map of TVA service area by and found using Creative Commons.