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Superconductors: Coming Soon to a Grid Near You?
Transmission constraints and technology developments may hasten emerging applications.
Sure, superconductor technology might have lots of potential, but it can't do anything for me today.
That has been the assumption in the energy industry. But events of the past year, including the installment of superconductor reliability solutions onto grids and even the launching of an energy-centric superconductor company by a 30 year-old mainstay of the superconductor industry, indicate that the future just might be now.
John Howe, vice president, electric industry affairs, at American Superconductor Corp., has been very outspoken on this topic, but others concur as well.
Consider Intermagnetics General Corp. of Schenectady, N.Y. ( www.igc.com), which was founded in 1971 and produces superconductor materials for traditional applications such as medical uses of magnetic resonance imaging. Last March IGC founded IGC SuperPower. The company aims to exploit its superconductor know-how in the energy arena.
"It's only in the last few years that we saw [superconductor power technology] as a major business opportunity," says Pradeep Haldar, general manager of IGC SuperPower.
First Deployment: A Grid Upgrade On Wheels
Materials with superconductor potential can achieve superconductivitythat is, zero resistance to the flow of electricityonly when cooled to ultra-low temperatures (hundreds of degrees below freezing). Due to the difficulty and cost of achieving such low temperatures, superconductor technology has been commercially viable for only a select range of applications such as MRI. Until recently, that is.
Possibilities for the technology took a big step forward in the late 1980s, when high-temperature superconducting wire (HTS) was discovered. Granted, the term high temperature is relative: HTS wire still needs to be cooled well below minus 200 degrees, but it's from five to 20 times warmer on the Kelvin scale than traditional superconducting materials.
"The economic equation is transformed," says Howe. "It now makes sense. When you look at the benefits you get from superconductivity-high capacity, efficiency, and so forth-you can now pay for the cooling. You get the benefits, and, net, the calculations work out."
And so, out comes Westborough, Mass-based American Superconductor with its family of product offerings. Its Distributed Superconducting Magnetic Energy Storage (D-SMES) system, for one, according to Howe, increases grid reliability without the time and red tape that goes with siting a new power line. Last July the company installed six D-SMES devices on Wisconsin Public Service's grid to help the utility solve reliability problems.
WPS found itself confronted with high load growth in an isolated corner of its grid, making it vulnerable to voltage differentials during system faults. WPS couldn't afford to wait the three or four years to get a new power line sited and installed. So, by deploying the D-SMES devices, says Larry Borgard, vice president of transmission and engineering, WPS essentially was "protecting from having the system collapse."
Billed as the world's first commercial superconductor-based solution for grid reliability, the American Superconductor D-SMES devices sit inside mobile tractor trailers at various spots on the grid. In the event of a voltage drop that could cause the system to falter, the devices give relief by shooting a