Bringing Renewable Energy to North America’s Electric Grid
Smart Wires Inc.
In 2003, a massive blackout in the northeastern United States affected approximately 55 million homes across the region as well as into Ontario, in what is still considered one of the largest blackouts in North American history. Following the blackout, a team at Georgia Institute of Technology was inspired to continue work on flexible alternating current transmission systems (FACTSs) for the North American electric grid to prevent future power loss events.
The team’s work led to the development of the smart power flow control concept, which allowed grid operators to adjust power flows across the electric transmission network in real time. This became the catalyst to bring some of the U.S.’s largest and most respected utilities together in 2010 to aid in launching an initiative called the Smart Wires Focused Initiative, a pre-cursor to Smart Wires becoming a company.
In the past decade-plus of Smart Wires’ existence, the company has developed projects and solutions with more than twenty utilities across multiple continents and sports more than 3,000 device years of field experience. These projects facilitate more renewable energy reaching end customers.
During the unprecedented blackout, Jessica Joyce found herself shaken at the event’s occurrence and completely unsure when the power would return, which made caring for her newborn premature daughter even more daunting. Now the Senior Vice President of Smart Wires, Joyce reflects on her lifelong passion for making the world a cleaner place and how Smart Wires emboldened her to mold that passion into a career.
She remembers experiencing the challenges and financial pains of congestion and connecting renewable energy to the grid firsthand in her previous job as a wind turbine salesperson. She is now very excited to see movement toward new energy solutions and rapid adoption of electric power but believes there is no way to achieve this transition without modernizing the electric grid. “Smart Wires is how to make [modernization] happen and enable a move to a more critical part of the energy value chain.”
Smart Wires is primarily concerned with reimagining the modern electric grid using innovative technologies and analytics that provide digital, controllable, optimized power systems which will enable renewable energy adoption and consumer electrification at the pace and scale necessary to achieve a net-zero world. Net-zero refers to a goal by governments, businesses and individuals to create a global economy that produces zero emissions.
The company’s primary offering is an advanced power flow control technology called SmartValve, intelligent hardware that pushes power off overloaded power lines and pulls it onto underutilized lines. The company primarily serves owners and operators of electric transmission systems that want to reduce power line congestion, boost reliability and resiliency of those lines, accelerate the transition to clean energy, and save hundreds of millions of dollars for its customers.
Smart Wires is also keen to help integrate more renewable energy into the electric grid as well as reduce the cost and environmental impact of generating and distributing electricity. “Energy transition is a global movement,” Joyce mentions. Companies are moving from the use of fossil fuels to renewable sources like wind, sun, and hydroelectric power. This switch is to combat the rise of greenhouse gases and emissions which threaten to harm the way of life on Earth. Smart Wires technology automatically activates to balance the power flow on the grid and enables large amounts of renewable energy to connect while keeping costs manageable.
Joyce explains that energy systems are undergoing a transformation from both a supply and demand perspective. Fossil fuel generation is retiring; new sources of renewable energy are connecting in different locations, and demand is increasing for electric solutions, especially with transportation and heating. This demand is also changing due to the rise of extreme weather events that today’s electric grids, meant to cater to large-scale centralized fossil fuel generation, are not designed to handle.
She adds that some sources of power generation and power loads are having trouble making the way to customers in need of power, so there is a need to modernize the existing grid and address the need for expansion. If one examines the grid system as a highway: “We need to reroute the traffic and use roads with untapped capacity and [also] build new roads.”
Reaching this untapped potential will not be an easy road ahead. Joyce refers to the most recent Berkeley Lab’s Electricity Market and Policy Group report, which showed that 930 gigawatts of zero carbon-generating capacity is currently needing transmission access in the U.S. As well, interconnection wait times are rising from 2.1 years to 3.7 years, meaning that these projects are ready to go to deliver clean energy but are stuck in the process.
Joyce and Smart Wires are heartened to know that the U.S. federal government is getting more engaged in grid-enhancing technologies, hardware and software that increase the capacity, efficiency and/or reliability of the transmission grid, of which power flow control is one key example. The Department of Energy recently launched a case study showing how grid-enhancing technology can save customers money, which is clear action on the heels of President Biden’s signing of an infrastructure bill in 2021 to give $3 billion in funding to smart grid investment grants. Given that the bill specifically included power flow control technology, Smart Wires is eligible for this funding.
Government officials and organizations like Alberta Electric Systems Operator (AESO) and the Canadian Renewable Energy Association (CanREA) are recognizing the importance of the work that Smart Wires is doing, even naming modular power flow control technology as key to influencing the electric grid in the next decade. The latter recently published a 2050 vision document as a call-to-action for energy decision makers to decarbonize the grid in Canada, especially through more effective use of existing infrastructure.
In the face of challenges, Smart Wires has logged milestones in the past few years and is in a good position for growth across its key markets. The company recently opened a 46,000-square-foot facility in Durham, North Carolina, and Joyce affirms that North Carolina has grown into a strong hub for smart grid-based businesses, giving Smart Wires great access to talent, infrastructure, manufacturing know-how, and new research and development partnerships.
The company also continues its projects on a global scale. For example, Joyce excitedly details a collaboration between Smart Wires and the National Grid Electricity Transmission (NGET) in the United Kingdom which unlocked 1.5 gigawatts of network capacity, enough renewable energy to power 1 million homes and support further net-zero ambitions in the country.
Smart Wires has also installed several projects in Colombia with Empresas Públicas de Medellín (EPM) in Medellin and Grupo Energia Bogota (GEB) in Bogota, adding 250 megawatts of network capacity to alleviate interregional power line congestion, improve supplies, and support economic development. Finally, ventures in Australia have led to installing devices and unlocking 170 megawatts of additional capacity for 30,000 homes.
For its continued recent efforts, Smart Wires has been recognized across the industry. Accolades for the company include earning the ‘Technology Pioneer’ award from the World Economic Forum (WEF), which recognizes companies shaping the energy industry. The WEF also recognized the company as contributing one of the top three transmission grid innovations of the entire decade. Smart Wires has also been lauded by its international partners like EPM and NGET with collaboration awards, as well as back at the home base of North Carolina with a ‘Cleantech Impact’ award from the Research Triangle Cleantech Cluster.
Smart Wires will be working to gain significant traction and growth in its major markets of North and South America, Europe, and Australia to keep this momentum rolling, while continuing expansion into new markets like Latin America, Africa, and Asia. The company is expecting to add 250 personnel to U.S. operations over the next five years to go along with its projected growth. It will also be working on technologies with greater applicability for its customers, which will solve core problems as energy transition continues.
Joyce loves being on the forefront of renewable energy. “If it wasn’t something I loved, it’d be harder to do it… it feels like a full circle.” Smart Wires sits on the edge of an exciting shift in the renewable energy market and has all the tools to make its goals a reality for itself and for consumers.