First, the good news: Electrical grids are awash in requests to connect ever more sources of renewable energy. 

That’s thanks to a few factors. Solar and wind keep getting cheaper, and various programs incentivize or mandate more clean electricity. And as renewables increasingly displace fossil fuel use, the result is fewer greenhouse gases added to the atmosphere—and considerable progress toward a future where we blunt the worst impacts of climate change. 

So what’s the bad news? Well, at the moment, a lot of infrastructure in the U.S. and many other countries simply can’t accommodate such a rapid influx of clean electricity, so there’s a gigantic backlog stuck waiting to connect. What’s needed is an overhaul, says Dr. Amol Phadke—and he has an elegant solution in mind.

Phadke is a staff scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, an affiliate and senior scientist at UC Berkeley’s Goldman School of Public Policy, and a founding member of the Goldman School’s India Energy & Climate Center. Already this year he’s helped author work on speeding up transmission expansion both for the nonprofit GridLab and for the Energy Institute, an affiliate of Berkeley’s Haas School of Business.

He discussed retooling the grid for a renewable future with’s own Dr. Kamal Kapadia; catch the replay on LinkedIn. One other note from the co-founder and chief learning officer: “A little fact about Amol: He and I started at Berkeley together, and he is one of my closest friends.”

A Straightforward Solution to a Huge Problem

Around the world, hundreds upon hundreds of gigawatts of renewable power are waiting in grid connection queues. According to the IEA, it’s around five times the total amount of solar and wind capacity that was added in all of 2022.

“That’s greater than $2 trillion worth of clean energy investment waiting to be connected to the grid, so that’s very exciting,” Phadke says, “but the situation on the grid side is not so rosy.” The problem, in short, has been a failure to build out transmission capacity at anywhere close to the pace needed.

Building new transmission lines takes a lot of time, money, and work. There are property owners and environmental considerations; everyone whose infrastructure is involved has to sign off; you have to find a way to spread out the various costs and benefits.

“So the challenge that we are facing,” Phadke continues, “is if we can’t expand the grid fast enough, we can’t integrate all these renewables.” That’s concerning for your electric bill and, yeah, also the climate.

A key bottleneck is our century-old approach to transmitting electricity. It’s essentially a strong steel cable that runs between towers and is covered by aluminum, which has lower resistance and carries the current. One factor that limits you from pushing more current through such a wire is that doing so heats up the wire and causes it to sag dangerously.

So what if, instead of steel, you used carbon fiber? It’s stronger by weight and doesn’t expand with temperature the way steel does. And because it’s lighter, you’re not adding extra weight to existing towers.

The upshot, Phadke says, is you can add more aluminum and run the wire hotter—and thus push through two or three times as much current. 

And this replacement process, known as reconductoring, lets you sidestep a lot of the expense and delay you’d face installing brand new lines, since you’re using existing towers along the same right of way. 

Countries like Belgium and the Netherlands, facing major permitting delays while trying to add more offshore wind power, have already used reconductoring to great effect. And that success, Phadke and his colleagues have found, could be replicated widely, from the U.S. to India to Japan, where similar permitting challenges and economics apply.

“This strategy can meet about 90 percent of the transmission needs with our 2035 goals,” he says. “It goes a long way.”

Promising for the Climate

Although advanced conductors cost maybe twice as much as conventional conductors, “the total cost of adding new capacity is actually half,” Phadke says, thanks to the savings of using existing towers and corridors. And reconductoring doesn’t hinge on any hard-to-find materials mined from vulnerable places; the amount of carbon fiber needed is a fraction of what the airline industry uses.

“So we’re seeing a lot of uptake of the idea,” Phadke says, noting U.S. officials recently announced plans to upgrade 100 thousand miles of transmission lines over the next five years with technologies like high-performance conductors.

One other key selling point is there’s a clear path to move this approach forward to help with our climate goals.

“We are really running out of time on climate. We have 10 to 15 years to make massive changes in the way we produce and consume energy. And if we don’t do that we risk the future of the planet,” Phadke says.

Herein lies a crucial point for new technology's potential to supplant fossil fuels:

“There is a lot of new tech happening in the clean energy space, but there is a lot of existing tech lying around that could also, with a push for policy and new business models, create a massive impact.” In other words, the crying need for innovation isn’t solely about engineering: “We need new technology, but there’s so much existing technology that needs new business models and policy.”

Where Do You Come In?

If you’ve read this far, you probably care about both climate change and what it will take to retool the electrical grid for a sustainable future. 

Whether you want to better understand the opportunities and challenges of running the grid on renewables, or get the context to ask your power company smarter questions and hold decision-makers accountable, or just level up your climate skills as you work toward a new job, can help.

Our online climate school’s 12-week Learning for Action fellowship covers everything from the causes of global warming to what makes clean energy such a vital solution area, as well as key levers like politics, finance, and communication. You’ll learn alongside a community of likeminded peers, because worthwhile climate action doesn’t happen in a vacuum.

New cohorts launch every few weeks, so don’t wait to find out more. Also check out our four-week course, Energy Decarbonization Pathways and Tools, for a deeper dive into the clean energy transition.