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Former National Grid COO sees line rating tech as a game-changer for US grid

➤ Transmission operators need more visibility into power systems.

➤ Dynamic line ratings are one of a number of grid-enhancing technologies.

➤ Utilities are seeking ways to harness existing infrastructure.

Chris Kelly is ready to hand the keys to the U.S. power system to the next generation.

Kelly started his career with National Grid USA 34 years ago as an associate engineer. Since then, Kelly has held various engineering and operations positions with the company, eventually bringing a "boots-on-the-ground" mentality to the role of COO.

In April, Kelly joined LineVision Inc.'s advisory board following his retirement from the National Grid PLC subsidiary. Backed by National Grid, the company manufactures noncontact power line monitoring equipment that allows electric transmission operators to implement dynamic line ratings, or DLRs.

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Former National Grid USA COO Chris Kelly
Source: National Grid USA

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission recently proposed requiring long-range transmission planners to consider dynamic ratings as part of a rule to ease the nation's struggle to build enough power lines to accommodate more renewable energy.

One of a number of emergent grid-enhancing technologies, DLRs can unlock spare capacity on existing power lines by producing a steady feed of real-time data for transmission operators on factors such as wind speed, cloud cover and line tension sag.

National Grid USA's parent company is already working with regulators to deploy DLRs throughout the U.K. FERC is also taking comments on whether it should require transmission operators to use dynamic line ratings after issuing a rule mandating the use of ambient adjusted ratings, a more accurate measure than traditional static line ratings.

Incumbent transmission owners and regional grid operators in the U.S. have said DLRs would be expensive and challenging to implement nationwide, but Kelly has a different view.

S&P Global Commodity Insights recently spoke with Kelly about the challenges and opportunities presented by DLR technology and how it relates to the U.S. clean energy transition. The following conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

S&P Global Commodity Insights: When were you introduced to grid-enhancing technologies, and how have you seen the technology evolve over your career?

Chris Kelly: I actually entered the energy sector in 1988. At that time, computers were just becoming available. I entered the sector because I really saw an opportunity for a technology overlay. We were using electromechanical meters. ... We used a lot of field forces to do a lot of work meter reading at substations and so forth. We were very manual.

I just saw a revolution coming with computers and electronics, and I was psyched to join the energy sector. Grid-enhancing technologies have been part of my career the whole time. We've always been incrementally trying to find opportunities to overlay technology.

The first real "things are different" moment was back in 2008 with the American Recovery Act out of Washington. We put together a $60 million smart grid program and got approval in the city of Worcester, Mass., to do an end-to-end smart grid pilot with 15,000 customers that encompassed advanced metering infrastructure, smart switches, and tariffs to do time-of-use rates.

That was a next-generation opportunity. As I enter into the twilight of my career with National Grid, I'm just excited for the next generation to plan and operate the system dramatically differently than we have in the past.

What are the main obstacles to the widespread adoption of grid-enhancing technologies such as DLRs?

The challenges that we face as a utility are threefold. As a utility, we want to be a plug-and-play entity in the game. We don't want developers to have to think about how and when they connect, so we want to design and operate our system in a way that enables unfettered interconnections; that's number one.

Number two, we have climate change coming at us. We're starting to see more ferocious storms on a more frequent basis that are lingering longer over our territory, so we need to spend money on resiliency.

But we also have infrastructure right now that needs to be in place until we can make that transition into a more resilient system and a more grid-enhanced system. That's the third leg of a three-legged stool that I see.

The challenges really are, how do we spend money in all three of those areas while keeping bill impacts at a minimum for customers? Being part of a regulated industry, regulators are watching very closely how and where we spend our money, and we have these three tranches. We have to optimize as best as we can.

In terms of low-hanging fruit, what are some of the easiest policy solutions that you see that could clear some of these barriers to adoption?

The challenge that we've had forever is that utilities are allowed to build on forecasted load expectations. We're allowed to build in advance. What we can't do is build in preparation for generation; we're not allowed to do that.

Any time we have to touch the system, it can be a lengthy process. The more we can build in advance of generation, I think that's really a chance for us to get ahead of the curve and become that plug-and-play type of entity where nobody's thinking about the utility.

Are there any main lessons or takeaways from the U.K. experience? They are obviously further ahead than the U.S. in terms of DLR deployment.

National Grid is entering into some really good discussions with some of their regulators centered around the question: "Hey, if we don't spend money on traditional legacy transmission, is there an opportunity to get recovery in other parts of the system that will help pay for that new design?"

The interesting thing in the U.K. is that they're retiring power plants, but they're also interconnecting large systems on their transmission system, which does create some stability. In the U.S. Northeast, state incentives are driving a ton of interconnection to the distribution system, which flips the whole design scenario for us.

How do you see DLRs factoring into decarbonization plans in areas such as New York and Massachusetts?

We can put these systems up without taking transmission outages. That's massive. We need more situational awareness data on the system than we've ever had before around how the system is operating on a more frequent basis and on a more granular basis.

The biggest struggle that smaller companies have when they're trying to engage utilities is that when we have to put new equipment up into our power system, it takes a while. It's high-voltage, you have to do it safely, and it's not fast.

The awesome thing about [technologies like LineVision's] is it's noninvasive. We can put their equipment on a tower, it's looking out using its technology, and we don't have to take a line outage to get the data that we need. It's absolutely game-changing as far as I'm concerned.

S&P Global Commodity Insights produces content for distribution on S&P Capital IQ Pro.