Superconductors and their Role in the Smart Grid
More Capacity through Superconducting
Greater Reliability through Superconductor Interconnection
Costs, Policy and Technology
High-temperature superconductor (HTS) cables can carry an order of magnitude greater power than traditional cabling and conduct electricity at near zero resistance. Smart Grid Analysis believes there is considerable potential for this new type of cabling to be deployed in the power grid to increase grid capacity, integrate renewable energy, and enhance reliability and security, all key requirements of the Smart Grid vision.
Despite this potential, the future of superconductors in the grid is uncertain and will depend on several factors, most importantly the continuation of subsidies and technical improvements in the superconductors themselves.
The huge increase in carrying capacity that superconductors can provide to the power companies is well illustrated by a project in New Orleans, where HTS cable is being used to address power supply constraints affecting the Metairie area--a densely built residential neighborhood. As larger homes rapidly replace older, smaller ones in this neighborhood, power demand is increasing and stretching existing distribution capacity to its limit.
The conventional solution here would be for the utility to bring in a 230 kV line and build a complete new substation, involving significant investment and time. Instead, 13.8 kilovolt superconducting cable will connect two existing substation sites in greater New Orleans creating a "virtual substation." This is the kind of situation that many power companies will face in the next decade and we therefore believe that it will create a major opportunity for superconducting cable in the future.
Smart Grid Analysis believes that this opportunity is enhanced by the fact that in many areas where new facilities might have to be built, there is little room to do so. In the Resilient Electric Grid (REG) program, also known as Project Hydra, the high power density of superconductors allows them to fit in available underground real estate in the dense urban area of Manhattan.
The high capacity of superconducting cables also suggests that they can usefully serve as "trunking" for interconnecting substations and formerly separate grids. We believe that demand for this enhanced architecture is likely to emerge from the power companies for at least two reasons: (1) it makes the grid more resilient and facilitates load sharing, because power can be transferred between regions and locations when outages occur; and (2) it allows large amounts of intermittent power generated by renewable energy sources (especially wind) to be transferred between regions. Power generated by wind turbines can now be used in urban areas.
With regard to (1), we note that ConEd expects Project Hydra to improve reliability by allowing the utility to re-route load from one part of the grid to another in an emergency. This obviously speaks to important needs in a world in which major outages in large cities throughout the world have been on the increase and threats to the grid from terrorists and hackers have become a significant concern of government.
Superconductors can also address the reliability and security issue through superconductor-based fault current limiters (FCLs). When FCLs sense a fault current, they prevent a large increase in the electrical flow, choking off a potentially damaging electrical spike (thereby preventing cascading failures) while allowing normal current to pass through unimpeded. Several companies have already built and delivered superconducting FCLs; they are used in Project Hydra, for example.
The examples given above--relating to the need for more capacity, reliability and security--are all clearly based on familiar issues that power companies face already and will face increasingly in the future. As such, the size of the opportunity for superconductors depends on relatively easy-to-calculate benefits and costs. However, when it comes to opportunity (2), using superconductors to effectively make use of intermittent power generation, there are far more unknowns.
Nonetheless, integrating renewables into the grid is one of the prime objectives of the Smart Grid and how it can be done is well illustrated by the Tres Amigas project, where superconducting cables link the three major grids in the U.S. and enable gigawatts of renewable energy to be transmitted over large distances. The Tres Amigas project is taking place in Clovis, New Mexico, a location that has easy access to the three grids. It is probable that more than four power companies will be involved in this project by the time it goes operational at the end of 2014.
To understand the commercial importance of this kind of project, consider the cancellation of T. Boone Pickens' massive wind farm planned for the Texas panhandle. Lack of sufficient transmission capacity was cited as one of the factors that contributed to the cancellation. Could a renewable energy hub such as that proposed at Tres Amigas be the answer to this type of problem facing wind power?
The truth is no one really knows. For one thing, the jury is still out on just how the Smart Grid needs to be architected to make the most effective use of renewables. (We note that the telecommunications industry has been changing its mind on exactly this kind of issue for more than a century now!)
And perhaps even more importantly, no one really knows what the real costs and benefits of this type of Smart Grid architecture would be. The dream is of wind power being generated in vast quantities in Texas and Kansas and solar thermal power being generated in en masse in Nevada and then shipped cost effectively to the East Coast (or beyond). The nightmare is that wind power (in particular) will never make much economic sense without Smart Grid facilities that everyone--the power companies, the wind generation industry and government--is reluctant to pay for.
Indeed, the cost issue facing superconducting cables in the Smart Grid is, for the time being, bigger than just the problems associated with renewables. The superconducting cable firms with which we have talked have stressed that government subsidies are essential to the immediate revenue prospects for their type of cabling. This creates uncertainties; for how long will government subsidies for superconducting grid projects continue?
Again this is a big unknown. The likelihood is, however, that where national security is perceived to be at stake, government will continue to cough up the funds. We note here that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has funded Project Hydra. Secondly, government subsidies for renewable energy seem to be well established in many important markets and this policy priority would seem likely to continue to fund superconducting "renewable energy hubs" such as the Tres Amigas project. However, taxpayers' patience, unlike the power of the wind and sun, is not inexhaustible when it comes to renewables and we note that the generous subsidy programs for renewables in Germany are now under political pressure.
Government subsidies for superconductor projects that address everyday issues faced by the power companies, such as higher capacity demand and network reliability, are even less likely to survive in the long run. They can be sold as job programs for just so long before looking more like corporate welfare.
This means that in a year or two or three, power companies will have to come up with ways to make real business cases for the deployment of superconducting technology in their Smart Grids. And this will require considerable improvement in the cost of superconducting cable.
Superconductor cables are much more expensive than conventional cabling materials--orders of magnitude. Smart Grid Analysis believes that there are at least three ways that this can change: lower-cost manufacturing methods and materials platforms for mass production of superconducting wires; improved cable making; and improvements in field repair, maintenance and remote diagnostics for superconducting cables and wires.
Superconducting wires are already in their second generation of materials and several companies are working on improved cabling as well. Finally, the impact of significant productivity gains in field repair and maintenance for superconducting cables should not be underemphasized. It was precisely these gains that helped to spearhead the deployment of fiber optics in the telecom network; and in many ways this is a very similar situation to what we face with superconductors in the telecom network.
We are hopeful in all these areas. As a result, we expect the market for superconductor products used in the power grid to grow to more than $175 million by 2017.
Source: Superconductors Play Vital Role in the Smart Grid
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