Smart Wires Inc.

Renewables aren’t enough

February 24, 2022

Before I joined Smart Wires, I spent over a decade in wind energy – and for a long time, I couldn’t imagine a better way to help bring about the kind of future I want for my children. 

But over time, I came to see that building renewables isn’t enough. We also need a reliable system for connecting clean power to the electrical grid and distributing it – and right now, we don’t have one. 

Solving this problem means addressing the spine of our energy system – the grid itself.

Today, most of the world is saddled with outdated electrical grids. Some lines are underused, while other lines are maxed out. Over-utilized lines mean congestion – including brownouts and blackouts – as well as needlessly high prices for consumers. 

Part of the challenge is that, in most cases, grid operators don’t have a way to manage power flows in real time. As a result, they’re stuck running inefficient systems based on guesswork, which can mean operating equipment outside of safety margins. These inefficiencies prevent the onboarding of renewables, slowing our efforts to decarbonize and heal our planet. It’s a lose-lose situation: we as consumers pay needlessly high prices for electricity – and the even higher price of a worsening climate.

The Good News 

Over the last several decades, a generation of Grid-Enhancing Technologies (GETs) has evolved to address these problems. GETs include an array of hardware and software technologies which boost the efficiency, capacity, and/or reliability of the grid. Smart Wires’ own SmartValve tools, for example, allow grid operators to digitally monitor and optimize power flows. Around the world, national grids as well as regional and local utilities are able to push power to underused lines and pull it from overused lines whenever they need to. In the process, these utilities have reduced congestion, boosted reliability, saved consumers hundreds of millions of dollars, and freed up space on the grid for renewables.

What else do we get from GETs? A lot. GETs can typically be installed in weeks, and they pay themselves back in less than a year. And the promise of adding renewables is substantial: GETs can double renewable energy capacity on the grid, providing clarity and predictability for renewable developers and allowing projects to break ground and get moving. 

GET-ting to Scale

None of this is meant to criticize other elements of our sustainability strategy. Great things are happening in e-mobility and battery storage, for example – but their promise is around the margins. If we’re committed to hitting global Net Zero by 2050, we have to operate at scale. According to the International Energy Agency, that means bringing over 1 terawatt (1000 gigawatts) of renewables online every year between 2030 and 2050 – four times the rate in 2020. And as noted above, congestion is already biting hard in many places. The message is clear: it’s time to fix our transmission systems so we can send clean power everywhere.

Snapshot of an Opportunity: The United States

Let me turn back to the U.S. again as an example of the opportunities we see globally.

The United States faces mounting congestion challenges, with power outages on the rise and expected to increase in the coming years. And because of these congestion challenges, 755 gigawatts of renewables are locked out of the grid. (These energy sources are stuck in electrical grid “interconnection queues,” sometimes indefinitely.) 

To provide some context: according to the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), “In 2020, the U.S. installed a record amount of solar—15 gigawatts,” bringing the nation’s total to 76 GW. In other words, if you add up all the solar the United States has installed to date and then multiply by 10, that’s the amount of renewable energy that’s stuck in limbo – in one country alone.

But the moment is also ripe for change. The 2021 Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) included $3 billion in new funding for the DOE’s Smart Grid Investment Grants program – and for the first time, GETs are named as eligible investments. Now, DOE is in the process of determining how to prioritize that funding – including whether to focus on projects that accelerate the energy transition, improve grid resilience, and reduce costs for end-users. At Smart Wires, we hope DOE makes the most of this moment by:

  • Using program funds to add intelligence, control, and capability improvements to the electrical grid, as well as for electric distribution improvements.
  • Evaluating transmission grid projects based on congestion relief (as measured by cost savings) and renewables added to the grid (or broader alignment with clean energy goals), with a focus on projects that can deliver results fast.

We’re not alone. The WATT Coalition (Working for Advanced Transmission Technologies) is trumpeting these same priorities because they make such clear, practical sense. When a single country has nearly a terawatt of renewables waiting in the wings, it’s time to clear away needless obstacles and bring them online. 

Meeting the Moment

The story of the United States is the story of the globe – with similar challenges and opportunities for dramatic change. 

At Smart Wires, we’re delighted to work with grid operators from around the world who want to meet these challenges. Our customers are using our technology to expand their electricity grids’ capacity, lower energy costs, and accelerate the clean energy transition. In doing so, they’re serving their customers, their communities, their countries, and our shared climate. They’re doing more than just meeting the moment – they’re seizing it.

Contributing expert

Peter Wells

Chief Executive Officer

Peter Wells is the Chief Executive Officer of Smart Wires, a global power technology company advancing the delivery of affordable, clean electricity worldwide. Peter joined Smart Wires from GE Renewable Energy, where he served as CEO of Onshore Wind for the Europe and Sub Saharan Africa (SSA) Region for two years. Peter had previously held the role of Senior Vice President and COO for Services and Projects with Vestas Americas.

Prior to Vestas, Peter had spent five years with UpWind, where he was CEO, growing the business 10X to create the leading Independent Service Provider in the US, before successfully selling the business to Vestas in 2015. Before joining UpWind, Peter spent ten years with GE in various roles, including Six Sigma, Marketing, Parts GM, and VP New Plant Project Operations in different GE Energy business units. Peter, who is originally from the UK, previously spent time at a variety of European companies, mostly in the EPC (Engineering, Procurement & Construction) space as a Chartered Surveyor, dealing with the commercial management of large and complex infrastructure projects.