Shining a Light on Advanced Transmission Technologies

Nov 12, 2020, Dan Greenberg,

The Colorado PUC conducted an excellent Commissioner’s Information Meeting (CIM) last week on the subject of “Advanced Transmission Technologies”. I think a lot of people’s eyes glaze over when you start talking about transmission. But once you understand just how pivotal transmission is to decarbonizing the grid in the West, you begin to recognize the importance of getting the most out of the existing transmission grid, and growing it in the best way possible. It turns out that there is a set of little-known, and infrequently utilized technologies that can expand transmission capacity and solve sometimes vexing transmission problems while saving consumers lots of money. This CIM was intended to shine a spotlight on these technologies, provide a high-level introduction to how they work, where they’re best applied, provide some case-studies of real-world applications, and consider the factors that have thus far inhibited their deployment.

The day featured presentations by six subject matter experts. I’ll provide a brief synopsis of the presentations below, but before I do, I want to mention that all of them are available here, and the audio to go with them can be found here.

Transmission’s Role in Decarbonizing the Colorado Grid

The session began with Chaz Teplin of the Rocky Mountain Institute discussing the role of transmission in decarbonizing Colorado’s grid. Chaz described several recent national and Colorado-specific studies that investigate possible cost-effective paths to meeting both emissions reduction goals and the needs of a growing economy. The common thread running through all of the studies is that they all involve tremendous growth in electricity consumption in the next three decades, highlighting the need for rapid transmission improvements. One study estimates that CO will need about 10 GW of added transmission capacity by 2050. Chaz then described the very limited transfer capability between Public Service of Colorado and its neighboring balancing authorities, followed by a fascinating case study of what additional regional transmission could mean for decarbonizing the grid. On September 10th of this year, a snowstorm blanketed everything and dramatically reduced solar output. On the same date, there was very little wind until late in the day. Interestingly, Public Service of New Mexico (PNM) experienced the same conditions the following day, but on September 10th, had substantial wind resource. The point? In a future with large amounts of variable resources, adequate regional transmission can both ease renewables integration and take advantage of resource diversity across large geographic distances. Decarbonizing the grid will be much cheaper if we can share power regionally—i.e. if we build the transmission capacity that enables it. The following picture says it pretty well:

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Optimizing Transmission at a Continental Scale

Chaz’s presentation was the perfect set-up for our next speaker: Jay Caspary of Grid Strategies, LLC. Jay has a long career in transmission planning, engineering and management at the Southwest Power Pool, and served as the co-lead of the Technical Review Committee on the infamous NREL Interconnections Seams Study, which was suppressed for about two years by the Trump administration, until being released in late October, 2020 (under pressure from the House Science Committee). Jay provided a fascinating overview of the Seams Study, which investigated a variety of options for the evolution of the transmission grids in the Eastern and Western Interconnections over the next two decades, including options that bridge the East-West electrical divide using high-voltage DC transmission (HVDC) links. This is a seminal, and incredibly important study that demonstrated very significant benefits to building new HVDC transmission across the seam. One scenario keeps the two interconnections largely as they are, but optimizes the existing DC ties along with conventional AC transmission additions. Two other scenarios envision significantly greater levels of cross-seam HVDC capacity, the most ambitious of which adds 126 GW of HVDC and creates a continental scale “Macro Grid”. The short story is that bridging the seam and the huge geographical scales contemplated by the study enables tremendous levels of inter-regional power transfers, aids renewables integration, thereby speeding and reducing the cost of decarbonization, and saves consumers on the order of $40 billion through 2038 compared to conventional transmission expansion planning. The following slide doesn’t do justice to either Jay’s presentation or the Interconnection Seams Study, so I strongly encourage you to download his presentation and read more about the study at the link above.

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The SOO Green Line: Shipping Electrons by Rail

OK, that’s a somewhat misleading heading, but it’s not too far off the mark. Following Jay’s presentation on what HVDC could do at the national level, Brian Lammers of the DirectConnect Development Company presented on a very practical example of what HVDC can do at a regional level. Brian described his company’s innovative, first-of-a-kind plan to bury a 2,100 MW, 350 mile-long HVDC line along existing rail corridors between Mason City, IA and Plano, IL. Named for the Canadian Pacific RR line that it follows, the SOO Green HVDC Link will bring plentiful, low cost wind power from all over MISO-land to power-hungry Chicago and points east throughout PJM. By utilizing railroad rights of way, DirectConnect avoids eminent domain and contentious siting and permitting issues, and by putting the line underground in a 3’ by 5’ trench, visual impact is eliminated. Perhaps best of all, the line enables renewable development where the best resources are, and delivers that power to remote loads with low loss (see figure below). In addition to power delivery, the innovative power converters will be able to provide significant ancillary services and corresponding grid benefits at both ends of the line. DirectConnect currently has an open solicitation to allocate transmission rights. The company’s plan is to have the line up (well down…) and operating by the end of 2024.

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Advanced Transmission: Making the Most of What Ya Got

Next up, Bruce Tsuchida, a Principal with the Brattle Group, spoke about the potential for three categories of new-ish technologies to increase the capacity of the existing AC grid, at far lower cost than conventional capacity upgrades. Bruce began by pointing out that most think of transmission systems as having fixed capacities, like road networks or railways. But just as cell-phone based GPS systems and advanced control systems have enabled roads and railways to get more drivers and passengers safely from point A to point B in a given time, these advanced transmission technologies can allow system operators to safely and reliably increase the power transfer capabilities of their existing systems. These technologies have been supported by advancements in power electronics, communication devices, computational processing power, and optimization algorithms. Representative examples include: 1) Dynamic Line Ratings (DLR), 2) Power Flow Control (PFC) devices and 3) Topology Optimization (TO). Rather than assuming that a given transmission line has a single, static, year-round power rating, DLR incorporates information on ambient (e.g. temperature and wind speed) and line conditions to calculate real-time line capacity that can be as much as 25% higher than the overly-conservative static rating. PFC devices utilize a variety of techniques to dynamically alter the reactance of a transmission line (essentially, how easy or difficult it is to push AC power through a line), thereby providing transmission operators a far greater measure of control over how power flows through their networks—for example redirecting power from an overloaded line to one with lots of spare capacity and expanding the capacity of the whole network. Finally, TO models alternative power flow scenarios in real time and then uses transmission circuit breakers to route power around congested elements in a network to increase the network’s overall throughput.

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These technologies are quite inexpensive, provide resilience and reliability benefits, and can yield tremendous savings, which Bruce told the audience can reach into the tens- to hundreds of millions of dollars annually—on par with savings generated by RTO- or ISO-operated regional markets. They do this by reducing congestion and reducing renewables curtailment.

So if these technologies are so great and have been around for a while, why haven’t they been adopted by more utilities or grid operators? More on that in a moment, but first…

Power Flow Control Devices: Traffic Cops for Transmission

Our next speaker was Alberto Del Rosso, a Principal Project Manager with EPRI, who took a deeper dive into PFC devices, which alter power flow by changing a line’s impedance or phase angle, or by injecting voltage in series with the line. Alberto described six different categories of PFCs: phase-shifting transformers, series reactors, fixed and variable series capacitors, unified power flow controllers, distributed series compensators, and back-to-back HVDC converters. After describing each of these at a high level and noting some current applications where they’re solving vexing transmission problems, Alberto turned our attention to why a utility would choose these technologies over traditional solutions. As the following slide summarizes, in some cases, there simply are no traditional solutions to the types of problems PFC devices can solve. But in most cases, utilities are installing them because they are much less costly, can be deployed faster, avoid the challenges of siting new transmission capacity, and some are re-deployable to new locations as transmission needs change.

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Alberto concluded by noting that while both mature and emerging PFCs are capable of solving transmission challenges cost-effectively, most have yet to achieve widespread adoption. What’s holding them back? Alberto pointed to five factors:

1.   Inadequate understanding of PFCs by transmission operators and planners

2.   Lack of models & analysis methods to evaluate PFC solutions

3.   Need for standard operational practices and procedures

4.   Regulatory cost-recovery mechanisms that make costlier solutions more attractive

5.   The need to integrate PFC models into energy management system applications

Addressing these impediments will require the development of new modeling tools, new frameworks for evaluating the reliability and economic benefits of PFCs, and more field demonstrations and pilot commercial installations of the newest members of this class of devices. EPRI is doing its part by conducting a project on Power Flow Control Integration, which offers members the latest information on device options, detailed field performance and a software planning tool called CPLANET that helps determine the location and size of new power flow controllers for mitigating thermal overloads in a power system over a range of operating scenarios.

Breaching the Barriers to Advanced Transmission Technologies

Our final speaker was Rob Gramlich, Founder and President of Grid Strategies, LLC, a consulting firm that helps its clients understand the opportunities and barriers to integrating clean energy into the grid. Rob’s presentation focused on why the technologies we’d been discussing all day aren’t being deployed in greater numbers. Rob picked up on some of the factors Alberto mentioned, namely the fact that few utilities, regulators, or stakeholders are familiar with the technologies, and that even where they are, regulatory incentives usually favor the more capital-intensive, traditional approaches. Rob described two overseas approaches to align utility incentives with ratepayer interests: the UK’s RIIO (Revenue=Incentives + Innovation + Output) model and Australia’s Network Capability Incentive Parameter Action Plan. He then outlined the main points of an incentive proposal he has submitted to FERC on behalf of a group of transmission technology providers known as the WATT Coalition. This proposal would establish a shared savings approach focused on smaller projects with quantifiable congestion reduction benefits, and would provide incentives for both advanced planning for these technologies and for applications where they provide benefits as retrofits designed to alleviate shorter-term constraints.

The WATT Coalition proposal comes in the context of FERC’s rulemaking docket RM20-10-000, which is investigating incentives to promote advanced transmission technologies. Rob noted that the rulemaking, which is expected to close around the end of this year, is unlikely to impact transmission planning in Colorado (unless and until we have a regional ISO…). In response to questions from Commissioner John Gavan and energy policy advocate Larry Miloshevich, Rob said that given the quantities of renewable energy already on the system and the plans for increasing levels of renewable resources in the future, there are probably plenty of opportunities to deploy these technologies in Colorado. He also noted the critical role of state regulators in motivating utilities to integrate these technologies into their planning quivers using both carrots, sticks and what he termed “orange sticks” (policies including both penalties and incentives).

Commissioner Gavan closed the session by wondering aloud how many participants were aware of these technologies before this session, and noting that “awareness is the first step.” Watch this space!



Federal funding could jumpstart rooftop solar, providing jobs, lower bills, and a boost to electric systems’ disaster resilience.

Alleen Brown

Alleen Brown
March 1 2021, 6:40 a.m.

IN THE WAKE of blackouts driven by extreme weather in Puerto Rico, California, and now Texas, grassroots organizers have repeatedly highlighted the potential for disaster resiliency through community-controlled renewable energy. While right-wing Texas politicians have sought to blame the yet-to-be-enacted Green New Deal — a jobs, energy savings, and clean power initiative — for the outages, aspects of the most progressive versions of the program, like community and rooftop solar energy, are being pushed by leaders from marginalized communities exactly because they will offer better disaster resiliency.

Yet so far, President Joe Biden hasn’t made distributed renewables or rooftop solar a central element of his climate plans, and local efforts have faced major hurdles to scaling up.

As the Biden administration prepares to unveil a sprawling economic recovery and infrastructure bill, a coalition of energy justice advocates are calling for new federal policies that would add up to 30 million homes powered by rooftop and community solar energy.Join Our NewsletterOriginal reporting. Fearless journalism. Delivered to you.I’m in

“We choose rooftop solar and community solar as an intervention in part to build wealth within communities and have it be something that supports local jobs and results in bill savings and keeps those resources as local as possible,” said Hanna Mitchell, Texas program director of Solar United Neighbors, which is leading the 30 Million Solar Homes initiative alongside the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and the Initiative for Energy Justice. Rooftop solar, Mitchell added, also “aids in grid flexibility and resiliency and mitigating peak demand.”

Puerto Rico perhaps represents the most powerful testing ground for distributed solar energy in a crisis. On the island, organizers in the mountaintop community of Adjuntas, led by the environmental justice organization Casa Pueblo, have succeeded in distributing solar panels with storage capacity to dozens of community members with medical needs or who have the capacity to provide resources like refrigeration for neighbors. The idea is that when the grid goes down — which it did for months after Hurricane Maria in 2017 — the people who need electricity most, or who can act as a resource hub, will stay powered.

The system already proved itself effective when earthquakes on the island knocked out power again in 2020. But a campaign called Queremos Sol, or We Want Sun, has faced major barriers in pressuring the commonwealth’s power company to prioritize community solar in its reconstruction plans.

SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO - SEPTEMBER 28, 2017: In downtown San Juan, any building with light is running off of a generator, as there is no public electricity working on the whole island. (Photo by Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

Generators power a few buildings in downtown San Juan as Puerto Rico is completely without electricity following Hurricane Maria on Sept. 28, 2017.

Photo: Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times via Getty Imag

In the contiguous U.S., efforts to expand community solar projects have moved at least as slowly. In California, the East Bay Clean Power Alliance is working to assure solar energy with storage is accessible to polluted, low-income neighborhoods and medically vulnerable community members. The idea is for solar-powered microgrids with storage to create islands of energy that keep essential infrastructure, including medical devices, powered even in the face of heatwaves, wildfires, or planned power shutoffs when large utility companies falter. In times of high demand, community members will have a wider array of power sources to pull from, reducing pressure on centralized plants.

IN ADDITION TO disaster resilience, rooftop solar can address another woe felt by Texas power consumers during the winter-weather crisis: high power bills.

In order to create savings on bills, however, households first need to overcome the cost of the panels and installation, an insurmountable barrier for many — especially renters. The East Bay project is getting around that problem through a unique policy in California that allows for the creation of community choice energy services, which are essentially small, community-controlled power suppliers.

Since organizers succeeded in convincing Alameda County, which covers much of the East Bay, to set up the East Bay Community Energy agency a few years ago, they have developed a business plan that will reinvest rates the agency collects into solar infrastructure for those most vulnerable to the climate crisis and those who have already endured health impacts from nearby fossil fuel infrastructure.

The effort, however, is moving slowly. So far, the East Bay organizers have not yet installed any battery storage that could power vulnerable neighborhoods. “The community choice energy policy was passed in 2002, but the very first community choice program took off in 2010. That is because investor-owned utilities prevented community choice from getting off the ground,” said Jessica Guadalupe Tovar, a staff organizer with the Local Clean Energy Alliance and coordinator of the East Bay Clean Power Alliance.“Investor-owned utilities prevented community choice from getting off the ground.”

It’s a version of a fight that has played out across the U.S., with the utility industry lobbying to slow the scale-up of distributed renewables. “They fight every year or sneak in language into different bills to try to gut community choice policies,” Tovar said.

Along with the hurdles erected by utilities, organizers face the sheer cost of making distributed power-sourcing work: both installing the solar panels and organizing communities to make the systems accountable and effective take money. Tovar said her organization operates on a shoestring budget with only two part-time paid staff members. “We’ve been advocating for these kind of resilience projects for low-income communities, communities of color, environmental justice communities for well over a decade at least,” said Tovar. “It’s taking a long time for decision-makers to listen.”

That’s why the Green New Deal was proposed: One of the few players in the equation with enough sway and pure spending power to get distributed renewable energy programs off the ground is the federal government.

BIDEN HAS PROMISED that the U.S. will be run on 100 percent clean energy by 2035 and will reach net-zero emissions by 2050. He has also introduced environmental justice goals, including a benchmark of 40 percent of benefits from federal investments going to marginalized communities. And he’s formed two separate environmental justice advisory councils.

The path to meeting his goals will be outlined in part by his upcoming economic recovery and infrastructure bill, likely to be unveiled in the coming weeks. It’s unclear, though, how much support will be offered to community solar. Last summer, a task force organized around uniting progressive Democrats behind Biden’s presidential nomination recommended installing 8 million solar roofs and community solar energy systems within five years. There’s no clear indication that Biden is actually moving toward that goal, and meanwhile, a coalition of community solar and energy justice advocates are demanding Biden and Congress go further than that.RelatedPuerto Rico’s Power Failures Inspired a Rooftop Solar Movement. But Officials Are Undermining It — in Favor of Natural Gas.

Just as extreme cold caused power outages across Texas, the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, the Initiative for Energy Justice, and Solar United Neighbors were in the middle of launching their 30 Million Solar Homes initiative. In a 13-page list of demands, the groups proposed a slew of federal government policies and programs that would quickly allow scores of communities to adopt rooftop solar.

Among the proposed actions are changes to the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program that would help cut low-income communities’ energy bills through community solar; an amendment to a utilities law that would allow for the establishment of community solar programs everywhere; and workforce development programs for underrepresented communities to learn to work with solar energy.

The groups are also pushing for a number of grant programs: a new Energy Department program that would provide $1 billion in funding to marginalized communities over the next five years for rooftop solar; another $1 billion for disaster-resiliency programs centered on distributed solar with storage; $100 million for a new Department of Housing and Urban Development grant program to pay for federally designated low-income housing owners to install solar power (with savings passed on to tenants); and $50 billion in Clean Energy Victory Bonds, modeled on the war bonds issued during World War II, with half the money going to rooftop and community solar projects.

The investments are essential: Without an influx of cash, community and rooftop solar will remain a marginal source of energy even as utilities shift to clean power. Texas is a case in point: While utilities have embraced large-scale renewable energy, community solar projects are just ramping up.

Some researchers have argued that investment in rooftop and community solar, alongside wind and solar farms, offers the most economic pathway to meeting clean energy goals. One recent study found that reducing fossil fuel emissions 95 percent by 2050 — which is basically Biden’s clean energy goal — would be much cheaper with a significant investment in rooftop or community solar. The report, which was funded by pro-solar advocacy groups, found that the development of 247 gigawatts worth of rooftop and local solar power could save energy users $473 billion over focusing on large-scale renewables.“It’s not just about rooftop solar, but solar in general, and using it as a tool to come out of the economic damage that Covid has caused.”

Those pushing for investment in community solar see it as a means to build economic and physical security that will keep people out of crises that require more expensive government intervention. The moves could also bring economic pandemic relief.

“It’s not just about rooftop solar, but solar in general, and using it as a tool to come out of the economic damage that Covid has caused,” said Yesenia Rivera, Solar United Neighbors’s director of energy equity and inclusion. “It’s policies on community solar and above all workforce development, so we can use solar as a tool for economic development in an equitable and just way.”

In pushing for the 30 Million Solar Homes initiative, Solar United Neighbors pointed to the Sunnyside Energy Community Solar project in Houston as an example of a community solar project with the potential to strengthen neighbors’ resiliency in the face of future extreme weather. The project will place solar panels on the site of a landfill to benefit the surrounding community, which is largely Black and low income.

What’s standing in the way of having lots of projects like it across Texas? “Funding is the biggest hurdle,” said Rivera. “The appetite is there, but the finances are not always there.”


Average Americans Pay Tax on Over Half Their Wealth. Shouldn’t Rich Americans?

Our current national confusion over wealth taxes serves only the wealthy.

FEBRUARY 26, 2021

by Sam Pizzigati

Might the United States, home to the world’s wealthiest people, sometime soon sport a tax on wealth? Media outlets the nation over have begun speculating on just that question. But many of these reflections are missing the point: The United States already has a wealth tax.

We call this already existing levy the “property tax,” and almost all Americans feel its pinch — with one exception. The rich. America’s current “wealth tax” only taxes the category of wealth that makes up the bulk of the net worth of average Americans. The financial assets that make up the bulk of wealthy people’s net worth — stocks and bonds, for instance — face no wealth tax.

Wealthy people, of course, like things this way. The rest of us should be aghast. How aghast? Let’s compare how our existing “wealth tax” treats the exceedingly rich and everybody else.

Exceedingly rich and average Americans both, of course, own property subject to property taxes. But the real estate holdings of our richest — our top 1 percenters — make up only a small share of their net worth, just 12.1 percent according to the latest Federal Reserve figures.

The richer the rich person, the smaller the share of net worth that comes from owning real estate. Case in point: Larry Ellison, the high-tech billionaire the Wall Street Journal has tagged the “nation’s most avid trophy-home buyer.”

Ellison owns one 23-acre estate in California that he spent $12 million to buy and another $200 million remodeling into a 16th-century Japanese imperial palace. He spent another $200 million-plus picking up properties in Malibu. He owns other homes in Lake Tahoe, Silicon Valley, and Rhode Island. Ellison’s biggest property grab? He’s bought up 98 percent of the Hawaiian island of Lanai, paying a reported $300 million in the process.

But even Ellison, the ultimate billionaire real estate junkie, faces property tax on only a small share of his overall fortune. Researchers at Bloomberg estimate the total Ellison fortune at just under $81 billion, with the vast bulk of that coming from his shareholdings in Oracle and Tesla. If we put the current value of his real estate holdings at a generous $6 billion — Ellison’s empire hasn’t released any exact figures — less than 8 percent of Ellison’s overall wealth would face an annual wealth tax.

For more typical billionaires, deep pockets who only own a half-dozen or so luxury getaways, the property-taxed share of their fortunes will be considerably less.IN WASHINGTON STATEa movement for taxing grand fortune is growing

Now let’s shift to the other end of the American wealth spectrum, to the poorest 50 percent of Americans. Taken as a group, the Federal Reserve calculates, these Americans own less real estate than America’s richest 1 percent, $3.85 trillion of taxable property compared to the $4.48 trillion-worth that the ultra-rich hold. But this $3.85 trillion in taxable property makes up most of the assets — 52 percent — that America’s poorer half holds.

So we have a situation where America’s bottom half pays an annual wealth tax on over half its wealth and America’s top 1 percent pays no annual tax on almost 90 percent of its wealth.

The contrast, on closer inspection, turns out to be even starker. Many households in the bottom 50 percent don’t own their own homers. They rent. But these households feel the property tax pinch anyway, indirectly, because their landlords factor property taxes into their computations that set rent levels. Property-less poorer Americans are, in effect, paying annual wealth tax on property other people hold the title on.

What about Americans between the lofty top 1 percent and the struggling bottom 50 percent? These Americans also face much more tax on their wealth than America’s rich. Real estate makes up over 33 percent of the wealth of households between the top 10 percent and the bottom 50.

Households in this middle class sweet spot between the top 10 percent and the bottom 50 percent, in other words, are currently paying a “wealth” tax — the property tax — on three times more of their wealth than households in the top 1 percent.

None of this makes sense. In a just world, our tax system would “pinch” all people equally. We would recognize, as truly progressive tax systems do, that people of means should pay a greater share of their income and wealth in tax than people of lesser means.

At the federal level, our income tax system currently pays lip service to this progressive tax notion. Tax rates on income in the highest income brackets run higher than tax rates on income in the lower income brackets. In practice, all sorts of loopholes make for an income tax system not nearly as progressive as it ought to be.

Our existing annual “wealth tax,” by contrast, operates in an abjectly regressive fashion. Our property taxes totally exempt the vast bulk of the wealth of the wealthy from any annual wealth tax. Our property taxes only burden low- and middle-income households.

But we do, finally, have some cause for wealth tax cheer. We’re now experiencing an explosion in advocacy — at both the state and federal level — for an annual wealth tax that takes into account all the categories of wealth that make the wealthy truly wealthy. Serious wealth tax proposals are now pending in states like Washington, and champions for wealth tax legislation also abound in Congress.

Voters, for their part, appear perfectly comfortable with the wealth tax notion. Polling last year found 61 percent of the voting public in 11 battleground states “more likely to vote for a candidate who supports a wealth tax” — specifically, a 2 percent levy on wealth over $50 million. Only 19 percent of voters in these states would be less likely.

Numbers like these are most likely subjecting America’s exceedingly rich to no small discomfort. Good.

Sam Pizzigati co-edits His latest books include The Case for a Maximum Wage and The Rich Don’t Always Win: The Forgotten Triumph over Plutocracy that Created the American Middle Class, 1900-1970. Follow him at @Too_Much_Online.