Navigant Research Blog

Transmission Superhighway Takes Shape

— October 20, 2014

In a previous blog I focused on the expansion of high-voltage transmission systems driven by utility-scale wind generation in the multistate arc that stretches across the central United States, from the Texas Panhandle to North Dakota.  Many of us have underestimated the impact and potential of this resource as a contributor to many states’ renewable portfolio standard targets (RPS).  Headlines about new utility-scale solar projects obscure the fact that installed utility-scale wind capacity is at least 5 times that of solar.

Recently, I looked into the long term electric transmission plans for every region in the United States, and found interesting developments in the Southwest Power Pool (SPP) region.  SPP covers much of the Great Plains and the Southwest, including all or part of an eight-state area that includes Arkansas, Kansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Texas.  The geographical footprint of SPP overlaps slightly with other independent system operators (ISOs) and regional transmission operators (RTOs) such as Midwest Independent System Operator (MISO).  SPP’s footprint can be seen in the map below.

SPP Regional Footprint

 (Source: Southwest Power Pool)

In 2008, SPP announced that it plans to build the electric equivalent of the United States interstate highway system – an interstate transmission superhighway that would serve as the backbone of a higher capacity, more resilient transmission grid, while providing increased access to low-cost generation, improving electric reliability, and meeting future regional electricity needs.

The SPP transmission plans I saw show that this conceptual idea is beginning to come to fruition, as new 345 kV transmissions systems are being built and older systems are upgraded.  Many of these projects have been completed by the transmission owner/entities in the region to address congestion issues in corridors like the Omaha/Kansas City to the Texas Panhandle route.  The figure below shows recent transmission system builds and upgrades.

SPP Regional Transmission System

(Source: Southwest Power Pool)

On the Horizon  

Meanwhile, ABB has debuted new, 1,110 kV high-voltage direct current systems.  A recent announcement by ABB on new products with 1,110 kV high-voltage direct current capabilities raises the bar again.  Until this announcement, 765 kV lines were the largest capacity lines available, and most transmission lines are currently in the 230 kV to 350 kV sizes.  ABB and other vendors (such as Alstom Grid, General Electric, and Siemens) are focusing on the Asia Pacific markets in China and India, as well Northern Europe, where major utility-scale wind projects now under construction will need to be connected with urban areas.  ABB’s announcement is exciting because it raises the high-voltage capability to a new level, well above what we currently see here in the United States.  I can only imagine that ABB will be talking to SPP about how to take the transmission superhighway to the next level.

 

Epic Electric Transmission Crosses the Rockies

— October 14, 2014

One of the most ambitious high-voltage transmission system and utility-scale energy storage projects in history is happening in the American West.  Designed by Duke American Transmission in a partnership with Pathfinder Renewable Wind Energy, Magnum Energy, and Dresser-Rand, the massive plan was recently announced.  As I have discussed in a previous blog, the utility-scale wind generation projects in progress across the High Plains and the Midwest are epic, to say the least.  Transporting this energy to major population centers such as Los Angeles represents major challenges and huge transmission system investments.  The intermittency of the wind resource needs to be managed, as well.  That is why this proposal represents some very creative thinking and engineering.

Driving cross-country from San Francisco to Northern Wisconsin on I-80, I began to better understand the massive geographical challenges that transmission utility planners and operators face.  The idea of moving twice the power that the Hoover Dam in Nevada produces from Chugwater, outside of Cheyenne, Wyoming, to Southern California includes building high-voltage direct current (HVDC) transmission lines across mountain passes up to 11,000 feet in Wyoming, and slightly lower passes in Nevada and California.  These lines will take years to fund and build, creating significant opportunities for major suppliers like ABB, which recently announced new 1,100 kV HVDC transmission system capabilities.

Salt Storage

The other really striking part of this announcement is the grid-scale storage project, which proposes to excavate salt caverns in central Utah and use them to store the wind energy as huge volumes of compressed air, serving as a massive battery, larger than any storage system ever built.  Compressed air would be pumped into these caverns at night, when wind power generation is peaking, and discharged during the day during periods of higher demand. 

The proposal is currently going through what may be endless approval processes at the state and federal levels, but a decision could come as soon as 2015.  In many ways, this new and novel proposal reminds me of the Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) Helms pumped storage solution that has been operating since 1984, storing Diablo Canyon’s nuclear output at night by pumping water up into a lake and then discharging it through turbines for peak generation.  The Duke project could be an epic feat of American power engineering to rival Hoover Dam itself.

 

High-Voltage Transmission System Landscape Undergoes Dramatic Change

— June 24, 2014

The high-voltage transmission system (HVTS) landscape can only be described as vast and evolving, as the forces of modernization, urbanization, and industrial expansion are transforming the power grids in Asia Pacific, Middle East, Africa, and Latin America.  In my forthcoming report, High-Voltage Transmission Systems, I explain why each of these regions represents a tremendous opportunity for the seven major HVTS technologies and why the market is expected to grow strongly.  These HVTS technologies include:

  • High-voltage direct current (HVDC) systems
  • High-voltage alternating current (HVAC) systems
  • Submarine and superconducting cables
  • Flexible AC transmission system (FACTS) solutions
  • Asset management and condition monitoring (AMCM) systems
  • Supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) systems
  • Substation automation (SA) systems

Both Europe and North America are clearly more mature markets.  Aging infrastructure and the adoption of utility-scale wind and solar generation will drive the reconfiguration of the HVTS network in those regions, likely creating many new opportunities.

Tectonic Shifts

The increasing investment from the private sector is exemplified by Berkshire Hathaway’s rebranding of MidAmerican Energy Holding Co. as Berkshire Hathaway Energy.  The Electricity Transmission Texas (ETT) partnership, which combines Berkshire Hathaway Energy and transmission system operator American Electric Power, demonstrates the foresight needed to invest in these large-scale infrastructure projects and points to financial markets seeing long-term opportunity in the next generation of the HVTS network.

The HVTS market has a history of epic mergers, such as Alstom and Schneider Electric acquiring parts of Areva and General Electric’s (GE’s) takeover of Alstom, that point to a shifting landscape of HVTS players.   From a technological standpoint, we are seeing the beginning of a new era where the Internet of Things (IoT) hits the HVTS market full force with inexpensive, easy-to-install wireless and remote sensors and cloud-based computing resources that use complex analytics and machine-learning algorithms to manage all aspects of the HVTS.  Indeed, the HVTS roadmap will be an interesting and profitable journey over the next decade and beyond.

 

With Alstom Bid, GE Steps Up T&D Competition

— April 30, 2014

The news that General Electric’s (GE’s) $13 billion bid to acquire Alstom SA has been accepted by Alstom’s board – coupled with Siemens AG’s announcement that they are considering a counterbid  – represents a clash of titans in the global marketplace for electricity generation and transmission and distribution (T&D).  For the last decade, that market has been led by three companies: ABB, Alstom, and Siemens.  GE, a huge global corporation with multiple business lines across finance, healthcare, and electric T&D, has focused its T&D business primarily on generation, digital energy software solutions, and some high-voltage system components, such as series compensation (SC) devices used to correct voltage loss and other instabilities on the electric transmission grid.

In 2012, GE announced a joint venture partnership and equity position in XD Group, a Chinese heavy industrial manufacturer that sells a full range of T&D equipment, substations, transformers, and high-voltage direct current (HVDC) transmission lines.  The deal not only opened up the booming Chinese T&D market to GE, but also allowed the company to white-label XD’s T&D system equipment for resale in other regions.  In my discussions with the Big 3 (ABB, Alstom, and Siemens) vendors at the recent Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) T&D systems trade show in Chicago, they mentioned that GE has become a significant competitor, signaling that the market structure has now morphed into a Big 4.

Mind the Gaps

However, I also saw that there are significant gaps in GE’s technical product lines and global manufacturing and installation capabilities, which need to be filled.  For example, flexible alternating current transmission systems (FACTS) solutions for voltage drop and power quality on transmission lines represent a $4 billion dollar market that continues to grow annually.  GE has traditionally provided SC solutions, but not the faster-responding static VAR compensator (SVC) and static synchronous compensator (STATCOM) solutions that are now being adopted as the aging transmission grid is being upgraded.  The Alstom acquisition is the perfect solution for filling that gap, as Alstom SA has manufacturing, design, and installation capabilities for SVCs and STATCOMs in North America, Europe, and Asia Pacific.  A broader discussion of this market and the FACTS technologies can be found in Navigant Research’s recent report, Flexible AC Transmission Systems.

At the time of this writing, it appears that the GE offer will be approved by the French government, and that Siemens is preparing a counteroffer.  ABB’s CEO has stated that his company will not enter this fray, but I am certain that ABB’s internal analysts are running the numbers and assessing the opportunity.  In this ongoing clash, the Big 4 all have a long-standing history of growth through acquisition.   However this works out, we can expect the market to sooner or later be whittled down to the Big 3 again.  These developments will definitely add color to my upcoming report on high-voltage transmission systems, which will be released later in 2Q.  Stay tuned.

 

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