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New power line tech could bring 100% renewable power closer to reality in U.S.

As nations around the world race to deploy renewable energy generation to stave off the worst effects of climate change, one of the most critical areas that they need to address is -- their power lines.

Nobody wants to care about power lines, but they represent one of the most unsung and most important parts of the energy chain. And the technology behind them really hasn't changed substantively since William Stanley Jr. and Nikola Tesla worked on innovations in the 1880s and 1890s for Westinghouse Electric.

With more renewable energy coming on to power grids around the world, advances in power transmission become even more important. That's because all of that sweet, sweet sunlight- and wind-generated electricity needs to be able to move to places where it can be used -- especially if nobody's using it at home (or the power plants are way out in the desert and Great Plains).

Building out better and more efficient transmission and distribution infrastructure can make it easier to move that power around to where it's needed and it's the sole focus of a new group of startups reinventing the humble power line to allow for high voltage transmission.

These are businesses like TS Conductor, a startup that has just raised $25 million from Breakthrough Energy Ventures, the billionaire-backed investment firm founded by Bill Gates, and the investment arms of two multi-national power and utility companies National Grid and NextEra Energy.

Unlike Veir, another Breakthrough Energy investment developing superconducting technology for energy transmission, TS Conductor's new distribution lines are ready to be used today.

"Just by replacing the wires you can get double the capacity out of [the grid]," said TS Conductor chief executive Jason Huang. "For over a century, conductor technology has not evolved or changed. With TS, we're leveraging the best material science has to offer.. which is a carbon fiber used in aerospace material."

By wrapping aluminum around the carbon fiber core, TS Conductor has created lighter, more conductive wires that can pay for their installation within two years, according to Huang.

One of the ways that those power lines save money is by reducing the loss of power when electricity travels over long distances. "Globally there's a massive 2,000 terawatt hours wasted every year. That is responsible for 1 billion metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions," said Huang. It's equivalent to the power consumption of a small country.

With these kinds of reported numbers, the question becomes why doesn't the industry adopt the new power lines. And the answer is that without advocacy or new regulations, utilities have little interest in making the switch.

Making lines more efficient won't make utilities much money, but if it's coupled with a buildout of new renewable power, utilities can argue for increasing rates for their customers -- or at least not reducing them.

If government also created mechanisms where utilities could capture some of the value in improved efficiencies, it might go a long way to encouraging adoption as well. By allowing utilities to keep 20% of the efficiency benefits, regulators could encourage new technology adoption without costing taxpayers any more money.

Some utilities are also looking at improving efficiency to reduce the carbon footprint associated with the purchase of power.

"Using our technology is one of the few ways where [the world] can decarbonize and reduce costs," Huang said.

Investors like Breakthrough Energy are drawn to businesses like TS Conductor and another portfolio company, Veir (which develops superconductor technology) because of the potential to reduce emissions and make boatloads of money.

Upgrading the U.S. electric grid would represent a $5 trillion market opportunity over the next twenty years -- as the demand for power increases and more renewables come online, according to Huang.

With the $25 million in new cash, Huang plans to build a U.S. manufacturing plant for the new power lines and then roll them out rapidly to the cities and towns that want to adopt them.

The team at TS Conductor even thinks they can do this at no cost to the city.

"One thing we offer as TS for municipal activities, lis essentially a free lunch," said the company's chief strategy officer and longtime energy executive Hervé Touati. "We are absolutely happy to finance the reconductoring of their lines, because when we run the math we have a very quick payback. We avoid losses."

There may be no such thing as a free lunch, but a potentially free upgrade of distribution capabilities for governments looking to deploy more renewables and improve the resiliency of their power grids could be even better.

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