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Why lasers could help utilities make the electrical grids greener


The U.S. needs a lot more wind and solar power to reduce its giant carbon footprint. But the country's transmission system isn't big enough yet to move all that newly generated power to our homes and businesses. And that's why some tech companies have a quicker solution, as NPR's Julia Simon reports.

JULIA SIMON, BYLINE: In a suburb of Sacramento, there's a clearing with an 11-story-tall transmission tower. Jon Marmillo is staring up at it. He does that a lot, including when driving.

JON MARMILLO: I have to get reminded to get my eyes on the road. I stare at the transmission lines.

SIMON: He's often thinking, we could be getting more power through that line. That's because utilities often don't have data on the line's real time conditions - like how hot it is, or the wind on the line. That determines how much electricity they can put through. Without that data, utilities have to be conservative about how much power can safely flow. That's why Marmillo's company LineVision is putting boxes on transmission towers.

MARMILLO: So there's a really small box at the top, and that's a lidar sensor. And it's actually emitting lasers.

SIMON: The laser sensors get data about the temperature, the wind. Wind cooling a line, for example, means utilities can safely transmit more electricity.

MARMILLO: So today it's very temperate. There's a nice breeze.

SIMON: OK. So those sensors are looking. They're reading the wind. And they're saying, OK, utility, green light, go. You can put more power on this line.

MARMILLO: Exactly.

SIMON: This technology is part of a suite of innovations that experts say could significantly help the U.S. reach its climate goals. The country desperately needs new transmission lines, but building them is expensive and takes years. Allison Clements, a commissioner for the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, sees these technologies as a way to make the grid work better faster.

ALLISON CLEMENTS: You can squeeze more juice out of our existing transmission system at lower cost and way more quickly.

SIMON: This kind of tech has been growing in popularity in Europe. Denmark's transmission operator says by using measurements and algorithms, they can increase power flow up to 30% in the windy spring and fall. And there's other tech - software to avoid congestion, new wires that carry more electricity. But experts worry about getting some U.S. utilities on board with these innovations. In most of the country, the more utilities build, the more money they make. Marissa Gillett of Connecticut's Public Utilities Regulatory Authority says that makes things like expensive transmission towers attractive. But cheaper grid-enhancing technologies...

MARISSA GILLETT: If I'm a utility, I'm not going to be all that excited about that because, all else being equal, I have less of a money-making opportunity.

SCOTT AARONSON: I fundamentally disagree with that statement.

SIMON: Scott Aaronson works at the Edison Electric Institute, the leading utility trade group. He says there are plenty of utilities choosing cheaper options and becoming more efficient with the existing grid. And they're exploring these new technologies, particularly the laser sensors.

AARONSON: I can say, safely, dozens of companies.

SIMON: As global warming increases the urgency for renewables, in late July, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission passed a new rule that deals with the long lines of wind and solar projects trying to get on the grid. The commission's chairman, Willie Phillips, says the rule requires utilities and grid operators to evaluate the use of some of these technologies - not require their use, as of yet.

WILLIE PHILLIPS: When you talk about requiring utilities to do something different than what they normally do, these are actions that take time, and we have to get them right. And so this is a first step.

SIMON: Phillips says there will be more rulings on this tech in the coming months.

Julia Simon, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Julia Simon
Julia Simon is the Climate Solutions reporter on NPR's Climate Desk. She covers the ways governments, businesses, scientists and everyday people are working to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. She also works to hold corporations, and others, accountable for greenwashing.