America’s Power Line Problem

When it comes to upgrading infrastructure for the energy transition, we often think about EV charging stations, building efficiency codes, and of course, the perennially hot topic of gas stoves. But in order to make progress on these things and many others, we first need to fix something far more basic: our power lines.

America’s power lines are stuck in the past. As outlined in the latest episode of David Roberts’ Volts podcast, we have been using the same power line technology since 1908: an aluminum wire to conduct the power, surrounded by heavy steel to reinforce it. While functional, this technology has a major drawback: it is so heavy that power lines sag downward rather than remaining taught. As a result, operators have to build many supports per mile, and build them extremely high off the ground, in order to prevent the lines from touching anything—which they frequently still do, leading to fires and other accidents.

125 years later, a far better alternative is available. This new technology uses carbon fiber instead of steel as a reinforcing agent, leading to hardly any sag. In doing so, it reduces fire risk while allowing power lines to be built lower to the ground and with fewer supports, dramatically decreasing costs. And because carbon fiber is so light, more aluminum can be added, increasing the capacity of the power lines.

Why does this matter for the climate? Because our current lack of power lines is creating a massive bottleneck for renewables.

According to the Washington Post, a whopping 930 gigawatts of renewables and 420 gigawatts of battery storage are ready to be built, but are waiting in a queue to be connected to the grid, like cars waiting to get on the highway. To create more “lanes” and speed up deployment, we need to build many more high-capacity power lines at low cost—which is exactly what the new carbon fiber technology makes possible.

And yet, hardly any U.S. power companies have even considered making the switch. Why? Because utilities are essentially monopolies. With their profits locked in, they have little incentive to innovate or improve—and so, nothing is changing.

There is one mechanism that can push them to change, however. Utility regulators—The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) at the federal level, and Public Utilities Commissions at the state level—have broad power to approve projects, set rates, and impose mandates and restrictions on power companies.

To shake utilities from their stupor and motivate them to fix our power line problem, our best bet is to get these regulators onboard.