To the surprise of no one, energy usage (particularly electrical) is on the rise — and with no end in site. In fact, a projection by the U.S. Energy Information Administration estimates that the world's energy consumption will see a 56 percent bump by 2040.
However, that increased use comes with a caveat. The more heat electrical lines carry, the more current they have, and the higher the likelihood of potentially damaged, overheated lines.
Increased energy demand and limited transmission capacity might point to a bleak situation, but researchers at Idaho National Laboratory (INL) believe they've found a fix.
The lab's Renewable Energy Program focuses on the possibility of integrating wind energy into power systems. Researchers believe it's plausible to use wind to cool transmission lines and increase current capacity by 10 to 40 percent.
Using wind in this way wouldn't be possible without a dynamic line rating process, a relatively new method used to address some of the challenges that utility companies face.
Each section of a transmission line receives a rating. Many companies use static ratings and measure how much energy a line can safely transmit, a number that can change over time.
Environmental factors such as wind, clearance, and temperature affect not only the ratings, but also the conductor temperature and transmission line sag. New DLR devices can also monitor these factors, but they go a step further and measure the current sag of the lines.
DLR equipment tracks a conductor over time to create reliability-based ratings. They're cost-effective and can be moved around to help operators understand how several lines function together in real time.
Static line ratings produce conservative estimates, while real-time transmission line capacity is often up to 25 percent higher than what these ratings suggest. Using DLR provides a capacity estimate that is more exact and promotes efficiency within existing lines.
Three hundred million people rely on the U.S. electrical grid for daily power needs. More than half of transmission lines, transformers, and circuit breakers are at least 25 years old, meaning the network is overly stressed in its aged state.
The problem is that the power grid functions on a delicate balance; one side of the scale is saturated with overproduction and waste while the other is riddled with power outages and angry consumers.
An outdated system makes this balance harder to maintain, but it's expensive to create new capacity for generation and transmission. Plus, there's only so much a transmission line can accomplish.
While too much electricity passing through a line can damage it or the conductors, natural variables also affect how much electricity lines can safely transmit.
The majority of the current national power grid is in need of a face-lift. To keep pace with increasing energy demands and to get the most out of transmission lines, operators should take a critical look at these three methods for improving infrastructure:
1. Build more generation facilities. As you might imagine, this option's financial investment makes it unpopular. Installing new or additional transmission lines costs anywhere from $1.5 million to $3 million per mile.
The cheaper option is to replace existing lines, but that, too, is still costly. Despite the price, constructing more lines and facilities would address the current challenges.
2. Regularly maintain transmission lines. Line maintenance allows utility companies to address the growing demand for power, efficiency, and a reliable power grid. A transmission line can function longer if aging structures get regular upkeep.
DLR devices help line maintenance by tracking a company's actual capacity. Aging lines can be reconductored if they're still in good condition. From there, lines can potentially receive more capacity or be replaced.
3. Use real-time DLR monitoring. INL provides test areas of DLR and uses wind and power line data to determine a line's heat and threshold. DLR presents a new opportunity to gauge the accuracy of static ratings.
This process helps a grid reach its true transmission potential in a safe and reliable manner. DLR reduces costs, can prevent the need for new construction or reconductoring, and can lead to increased capacity and reduced consumer cost.
As the need for power continues to rise, getting the maximum amount of safe transmission from power lines is essential. INL's innovative work with wind power and dynamic line rating should serve as blueprint for utility companies across the country.
These organizations can increase capacity through regular maintenance and utilization of the insight DLR provides. Plan for increased energy usage, and don't be caught off guard.
Ken Carrier, a United States Marine Corps veteran and self-proclaimed "weather nut," is the electric utilities industry expert at StormGeo. Ken is a driving force in the integration of several of StormGeo's proprietary tools, such as outage prediction and advanced lightning modeling. Connect with StormGeo on Twitter.
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