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Is upgrading and maintaining grid infrastructure an innovation blocker?

Less than two weeks ago, The Netherlands encountered a major power outage in Amsterdam which affected 1 million customers. It was the first major incident since 1997!

The outage was likely caused by a short circuit in 380kV substation Diemen. That morning both (redundant) halves of the 380kV substation Diemen were temporarily connected for a short period in relation to maintenance work. During that time a short circuit occurred, which is the likely cause of the outage of the entire substation as the protection automatically tripped all lines and transformers to prevent damage.

This influenced me to write a blog about the relationship between upgrading existing transmission lines and refurbishing equipment in relation to reliability. How does this impact innovation? Many US utilities and European grid operators focus on upgrading existing infrastructure (e.g., Metropolitan Edison Projects Planned in Met-Ed Service Area in 2015 Will Help Strengthen Electric System).

Of course, one of the obvious advantages of upgrading and refurbishing existing infrastructure is that you don’t have to worry about the introduction of new technology in the power system. As reliability is a key performance indicator of the grid, you can imagine that, in an ideal world, only “proven” technology should be introduced.

The availability of the power system gradually decreases over time if no measures are taken; this is, e.g., due to increase of load, aging, and even failure of infrastructure components.  Replacement and renewal, as well as upgrading, keeps the availability at the required level. But what happens when certain components are not produced anymore by the manufacturers?  This challenge often calls for innovative solutions. One must rethink the role and function of the equipment to be replaced by either making it obsolete or finding a company that can engineer a suitable economic alternative. Examples of this type of innovations can be also lead to novel applications, such as the use of high temperature superconducting solutions or current limiter technology. Of course this is another innovation that is needed in areas of the world where power systems are being built in “green fields” or show rapid grow rates. Examples of innovations can be found in, e.g., modular grid design (rural electrification with renewables and storage) and new transmission technologies like HVDC.

Eventually, the combination of multiple innovations from the different “development” states of the power system will cross-over and/or transfer technologies and operational experience to help (at least partly) resolve the new technology introduction problem in grids all over the world.

In conclusion, upgrading and maintaining grid infrastructure is certainly not an innovation blocker; rather, it routes innovations in a certain direction. But one question that remains is: How can utilities and grid operators assess and value global innovative technology for their own benefit?

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