Close Mobile Menu

How to Quickly Upgrade the Power Grid

A potentially simple solution to help the U.S. meet its future energy needs

May 31, 2024
by Glen Martin
Detail of bright powerlines power lines on poles with sunlight reflecting ISTOCK

The future may or may not be green, but one thing’s for sure: It’s going to be an energy hog.

Along with the usual demands, add the expected growth in EVs, burgeoning (and power-hungry) AI, and a surge in air conditioning due to hotter temperatures. Producing that power is problematic, of course. New coal and gas plants? Forget it; they just make a warm world warmer. We need sustainable low-carbon energy, and lots of it: solar, wind, perhaps new-gen nuclear—and, ultimately, fusion.

But it isn’t just a matter of producing more electricity. Moving it around is also a problem—there aren’t enough transmission lines in the United States to meet expected demand. But here, at least, there is some low-hanging fruit just begging to be picked. Researchers at Berkeley have confirmed that “advanced reconductoring”—basically, replacing existing lines with ones fabricated from sophisticated materials—can have a dramatic and positive near-term effect.

Standard transmission lines have steel cores encased by aluminum strands. But new designs that use carbon fiber, ceramic, or glass cores and extra aluminum can carry twice as much electricity as their predecessors, the researchers found. The technology is employed in some countries already, but U.S. utilities have been slow to adopt it. That may change as its benefits become more widely known.

“We were pretty astonished by how big of an increase in capacity you can get by reconductoring,” Goldman School of Public Policy senior scientist Amol Phadke, M.S. ’03, Ph.D. ’06, told the New York Times in April.

That’s particularly good news because installing new transmission lines is a long, laborious, and expensive process. NIMBYism invariably comes to the fore; people want the power but not the looming and unsightly infrastructure. Plotting routes, acquiring land, and securing the necessary permits can take decades and jack up costs.

But simply swapping old lines for new ones made from advanced materials can slash costs by half and reduce implementation time by years. Further, this approach could clear the bottleneck for thousands of planned wind and solar projects that have languished because local power grids aren’t able to carry additional loads. If advanced reconductoring were prioritized at the national scale, transmission capacity in 2035 could be quadrupled over current estimates.

Share this article