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Superconductors: Coming Soon to a Grid Near You?

Transmission constraints and technology developments may hasten emerging applications.
Fortnightly Magazine - January 15 2001

small burst of energy onto the grid. That energy, stored inside the tractor trailer, is available "literally on an instantaneous basis," says Howe. "The response time is less than a millisecond."

Borgard acknowledges that the D-SMES devices are not a long-term solution; putting up a new line is inevitable. The challenge, though, was ensuring that the system wouldn't collapse in the meantime.

"We needed a bridge from today to [the new transmission line]," he says.

Howe is quick to point out that because the devices come on wheels, they can be redeployed, so that as the needs of a system change, "[y]ou're not stuck with a stranded asset." In fact, that may have been an attractive feature of the devices to WPS.

"We don't plan on moving them in the next three or four years, but I think that is a potential advantage in that when we do get our transmission line built, we can pick them up and move them to another part of our service territory if we see a need there," says Borgard. He adds that his reliability solution-on-wheels could even be resold.

So how did the devices work for WPS? When called on last summer, they did fire successfully, Borgard reports. "The net effect [was] that industrial customers and customers with sensitive equipment didn't see as significant a voltage drop as they would have without these devices."

Still, Borgard adds, last summer's mild conditions didn't truly test the new devices, so WPS will have to wait until this summer to learn their true potential.

Up Ahead: Super-Capacity Cables

Power cable is another American Superconductor product that should be serving the needs of a utility in the near future. The company is working with Pirelli Cables and Systems, the world's largest power cable manufacturer, to produce what it calls the first HTS power cable ever to be installed on a utility grid, in Detroit Edison's territory. (American Superconductor is producing the HTS wire, which Pirelli is putting inside its cable.) The project, which has collaboration from the U.S. Department of Energy and the Electric Power Resource Institute, remains experimental compared to the D-SMES application for the WPS grid. It should be impacting the power industry before long, though.

How powerful are these HTS wires? In a downtown area of Detroit, nine old copper cables will be replaced by just three superconducting cables. In an era when "distribution real estate" is an increasingly hot commodity, the benefits of HTS cable could be significant, especially in urban areas.

And there's another urban-related advantage to the high-tech cables that HTS manufacturers are trumpeting: no excavation required. At least, that's what the Detroit project is out to prove. When the cable is installed this spring, project stakeholders will be testing the implementation part of the process as well, with conventional crews going down into manholes and actually splicing cables.

"So what we want to prove out here is not only that the power transfer capability makes sense, but the fact that the cable itself, which is built by conventional cable techniques, is easily