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End the Gridlock: Why Transmission is Ripe for New Technology

Recent advances in materials science promise a new, truly competitive paradigm for grid investment without land-use headaches or "big-iron" solutions.
Fortnightly Magazine - January 15 2001

perceived public interest in limiting grid expansion clashes with other public policy objectives such as ensuring reliability and fostering robust competition? The evidence of the past three summers is clear: Reliability will degrade, prices will become highly volatile, and the promised price benefits of competitive reform will remain unfulfilled.

The Siting Logjam Must Be Broken

Recent advances in materials science offer the prospect of another industry paradigm: one based on robust facilities-based competition in network services, without the environmental and land-use impact of traditional "big iron" solutions. Consider how new materials developed in the 1960s-e.g., optical fiber and silicon chips-drove the conversion of our copper-based, electrically controlled analog telephone system into a photonics-driven, digitized "information superhighway." Likewise, new materials developed in the 1980s now provide an opportunity to bring quantum improvements to the performance of our aging power network.

Twentieth-century power system components are largely based on traditional conductors-copper and aluminum. The 21st century power system will harness the benefits of two significant developments of the last century in materials science. Decades of advances in semiconductor technology are yielding high-power electronic devices with dramatically higher performance and lower cost. By adding intelligence and control to the traditionally passive AC network, these devices will enable active grid management-extracting higher performance from existing infrastructure and reducing the need for new lines. Meanwhile, rapid advances in high-temperature superconductivity, or HTS-a field that did not exist before 1986-are yielding new ways to deliver unprecedented quantities of power to meet the energy needs of our continually electrifying economy. At the heart of HTS cable is a new kind of wire that, today, carries over 100 times more power than copper. Field trials of HTS cable are underway. Commercial versions of this technology, which could multiply the capacity of existing rights-of-way, are expected in mid-decade.

Of Semiconductors and Superconductors
New grid technologies will allow competitive suppliers to keep their promises.

Advances in materials science have the potential to multiply the capacity of the old copper and aluminum grid system. In particular, several new technologies using improved semiconductor and superconductor materials could improve power reliability, shrink the power infrastructure footprint, and support robust competition. Some examples follow.

High-Voltage Direct Current. Widely used to inject large blocks of power directly into weak areas of the grid, HVDC avoids introducing the troublesome electromagnetic fields, "loop flows," and "parallel path" flows associated with AC grids. But broader use of DC was blocked by the high cost of the terminal stations that interface with the AC system. Recent advances in power electronics make it economic to move smaller blocks of power at lower voltage ratings. With market dynamics exposing sharp regional price disparities, deregulation has sharpened the investment incentive to link low-cost supply regions to high-price end-use market areas. Deployments of so-called "HVDC Light" technology are occurring in Australia, Scandinavia, and here in the United States, where ABB and TransEnergie U.S. are using this approach to span Long Island Sound.

Flexible AC Transmission Systems. FACTS is a term that encompasses a wide range of new technologies based on advances in power electronics. These